The 1999 train accident in Bourbonnais, Illinois caused serious rethinking of safety issues and procedures, and led to significant new safety legislation. The crash was a collision between a truck and a train. The force of the impact of a collision between a southbound Amtrack passenger train and a semi-truck loaded with steel derailed the entire train, and killed eleven passengers. An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board indicated that the cause of the accident was the truck driver’s trying to beat the train to a grade crossing. The NTSB commended the Bourbonnais Illinois Hospital response. The NTSB also recommended increasing enforcement of grade crossing signals and the installation of event recorders at all new grade crossings. They also spelled out new procedures for providing emergency responders with lists of all the crew and passengers who are aboard trains. A memorial to commemorate the victims of the crash was erected by the city of Bourbonnais, and is located at the intersection of Highways 102 and 45, across the way from the campus of Olivet Nazarene University.
The crash occurred 9:47 pm CST on 15 March, 1999 in the city of Bourbonnais Illinois. The Illinois Central Railroad’s southbound Amtrack train #59, the City of New Orleans, hit a semi-truck loaded with steel which was blocking a grade crossing. At the moment of impact, both of the locomotives and eleven of the fourteen passenger cars derailed; and then the derailed cars collided with two of the ten freight cars on a siding. The NTSB report attributed the cause of the crash to the reaction of the truck driver to the grade crossing signals. Perhaps thinking that he could beat the train crossing the tracks, the driver drove onto the tracks in front of the oncoming train. The driver, John Stokes, who survived, stated that the signal at the crossing did not activate until he was already on the track. He further stated that he hadn’t wanted to brake suddenly, which would propel his load of steel to ram the cab of his truck. The eleven passenger deaths and 122 injuries at Bourbonnais hospital resulted in over $14,000,000 in damages. Witnesses to the accident reported that the signal gates lowered only after the truck had begun crossing the tracks. One of the witnesses stated that the signal gate hit the truck’s trailer, and may have broken as a result. John Stokes was sentenced in 2004 to a two year prison term for failure to yield at a grade crossing. The presiding judge stated that he believed the driver’s sleepiness impaired his ability to make a safe driving decision.
As a result of the Bourbonnais crash the NTSB issued a number of recommendations focusing on railroad safety issues, which included reviewing the effectiveness of existing signals at railroad grade crossings. Also recommended was the use of traffic dividing islands to deter motorists from attempting to drive around the grade crossing gates. The U.S. Department of Transportation was urged to provide larger incentives and grants in order to increase the effectiveness of signals at grade crossings. The U.S. Federal Railway Administration was required to install event recorders in order to facilitate monitoring of gate position at grade crossings. The railroads themselves were directed to begin procedures to record accurate crew and passenger lists for emergency responders, and to improve Bourbonnais healthcare. They were also directed to implement better crew-accountability procedures on passenger trains. Railroads were also directed to install new event recorders at all new grade crossings.