Railroad crossings: An engineer’s view

by Greg Udelhofen
For The Beacon

Screen Shot 2019-06-17 at 4.27.16 PMEditor’s note: In light of the recent non-fatal car-train collision at the Pleasant View Road crossing in Plymouth , as well as the city’s petition to the state railroad commissioner to study the adequacy of warnings at six city crossings following the restart of a cross county rail line, The Beacon is reprinting our story from The Review, Dec. 18, 1984.


“I’m a little on edge each time I approach a grade crossing,” said Al Fournier, who has been a train engineer for the Milwaukee Road for 31 years.

Fournier, who has 39 years of service with the railroad, has been involved in six fatal car/train accidents while at the controls of the engine.

Fournier runs the Milwaukee to Green Bay freight line and on a one-way trip, he has 140 crossings to deal with, not counting private and farm crossings.

The last car/train fatality Fournier was involved in occurred a little over a year ago at the intersection of County Trunk N and claimed the life of a 17-year-old youth.

“I went home that night, gave my 17-year-old son a big hug and told him to stay away from railroad crossings,” Fournier recalled of the tragic accident.

Fournier said he has been involved in numerous accidents during his 39-year career as a railroad man. Fournier said the accidents were hard to deal with at first.

“After an accident you find yourself questioning the procedures an engineer follows,” he said. “You wonder if you did everything right or if you could have done something else to avoid the accident.”

But Fournier said he has learned to live with the reality of his job and realized he can do very little to avoid an accident.

Fournier is quick to point out that motorists need to be educated about trains.

“Motorists think trains are just like cars,” Fournier said. “They think you can stop a train just like a car, but believe me you can’t.”

The average freight train Fournier runs is 90 to 100 cars long and weighs 5,000 tons. The train travels at 30 mph between Milwaukee and Green Bay. With the momentum of the train, Fournier said you’re going to need some distance to bring it to a stop. It would take about ¼ mile to stop the train.

An engineer also has to make a judgement decision on whether or not to put a train into an emergency stop.

“We’re carrying tankers with toxic chemicals and although the chances of a train derailing during an emergency stop are slim, it could happen,” Fournier said. “So each time we see a vehicle approaching a grade crossing, we’re not going to throw the train into an emergency stop.”

Fournier said he has had cases where motorists will come racing up to the crossing just to see if the train will stop. He said he has seen cases where a motorist will stop right on the track to see if the train will stop and then take off just before the train meets the crossing.

“I’ll tell you, there is a lot of tension in this job,” Fournier said. “Each time I see a car approaching a crossing I’m thinking ‘are they going to stop.’”

Fournier is known for following warning procedures strictly by the book. In fact, some residents of towns he travels through complain of his over whistling. With whistle markers set at ¼ mile before a grade crossing, Fournier’s whistle blast will last about 30 seconds.

Fournier is not sure if additional controls at crossings would be more effective.

In his years as an engineer, Fournier said he has witnessed numerous motorists accelerate in order to beat the train at the crossing. He has also observed motorists ignore flashing lights and even go around gates just to save the few minutes it would take to wait for the train to pass.

“A good philosophy (for motorists) about grade crossings is that it’s one place where you lose when you tie,” Fournier said.

Fournier said he is concerned about the average motorist’s lack of respect for the consequences involved in a collision with a train.

“I remember a case when I just missed a boy and girl riding on a motorcycle,” Fournier said. “I know they had to have heard the whistle, but when they passed about a foot in front of the engine, they were traveling around 50 mph. That’s when the old heart moved right up my throat.”

Fournier also does not understand why fatal accidents don’t bring about a better awareness to other motorists.

“A lot of these fatal car/train accidents happen at crossings near the individual’s home,” Fournier said.

“I don’t know if people get used to crossing the tracks without looking or if they think I’ll never get hit by a train, it only happens to other people.”

“But I’ll tell you, I can never forget,” Fournier said. “I can still remember the name of the girl I hit in an accident that happened 20 years ago at a crossing in Cedarburg. It was in the middle of June and she was driving with her windows up and the air conditioning on. She didn’t hear us. Luckily she survived.”

Fournier said he fears for the people who are involved in a car/train accident.

“I know I’m not going to get hurt, unless I hit something like a gas truck,” he said. “All I can do when it happens is radio for help and offer a prayer.”

Fournier said he has about three or four near-misses a run. Although the motorists may not have felt any danger, all it would take is a stalled engine leaving the motorist stranded on the tracks according to Fournier.

Fournier said his worst fear as an engineer is hitting a school bus. Consequently when he spots a bus driver who doesn’t stop at the crossing, he files an immediate report.“I don’t think I could handle it if I were to hit a bus full of kids.”


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