Champaign underpass site of 15 accidents this year; Railroad company not always notified in some cases

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The Washington Street underpass was the site of 15 accidents this year as of early December. Source: City of Champaign

Out of the ten railroad underpasses, or viaducts, in the city of Champaign, only three are tall enough for all legal vehicles to safely pass under. 

There is signage indicating the clearing height at each one that falls short. However, some of them are still the site of frequent accidents, according to local residents and police reports. 

Most recently, a citizen reported an accident to the News-Gazette where a Greyhound bus got stuck in a viaduct near First Street and E Washington Street. 

But this wasn’t the first one of the year. 

According to the Champaign Police Department, this is the 15th call this year about accidents surrounding that viaduct. Last year, there were 17. 

Champaign Deputy Police Chief Kevin Olmstead said although that particular viaduct has been the site of a lot of accidents, it’s not the only one with traffic concerns. Throughout the year, the department has received calls about accidents at different locations as well. 

In February, police responded to an incident where a semi-truck got stuck, and partly crushed, under a viaduct heading east on Springfield Avenue. 

The Springfield Avenue underpass. Source: City of Champaign

Olmstead said not every accident is directly caused by the viaduct. Sometimes it’s the surrounding infrastructure, so it’s unclear whether there is a clearance or traffic problem. 

Olmstead said they are looking into the Springfield Avenue viaduct to see what improvements need to be made, but compared to other vehicle accidents they see, he said these calls aren’t as much of a concern.

“[We] respond to approximately 40,000 calls each year. Among those, officers infrequently respond to reports of vehicles that have either struck viaducts or stopped short of doing so but require traffic control to safely leave the area,” he said. 

However, while accidents are reported and handled by the city, it’s the railroad companies who are ultimately in charge of all inspections and construction. 

There are 10 viaducts in Champaign, all along the Canadian National railroad route. All of them except for one, the city-maintained Windsor Road viaduct, are fully owned and maintained by the railroad company.

Source: City of Champaign

As for all the other bridges, inspections are fully controlled by Canadian National. However, not every accident surrounding these bridges are being reported to the railroad company as they should be.

For instance, a recent accident with the viaduct on First Street and East Washington Street was not initially reported to anyone at Canadian National. Since then, Canadian National Spokesperson Kevin Donahue confirmed that the company eventually learned about the accident and sent a team out there to inspect the bridge. 

According to him, the issue has been addressed and no further changes are needed. 

“When a bridge strike is reported to us we have the bridge and track inspected to ensure there is no damage and that the structure is safe for operation,” he said. “Sometimes a bridge is hit, and we are not notified. However, all our structures are inspected annually to ensure they are safe.”

Annual inspections are required per the Federal Railroad Administration regulations.

If a driver strikes any railroad infrastructure, they are required under the Illinois Vehicle Code to report the incident to local authorities. 

“Following a strike to infrastructure, Champaign Police report the incident to staff at the City’s Public Works Department for follow up and referral to outside stakeholders,” Olmstead said. “Following this report, Champaign Police have no further involvement in inspections.”

In some cases, community members can make complaints directly to the company. 

But in other cases, and for companies like Union Pacific, any complaints or inspection requests need to be routed through a local official or the Illinois Commerce Commission. 

While none of Union Pacific’s tracks run through Champaign, it maintains tracks and several viaducts along I-74 and in surrounding towns including St. Joseph.

Margaret Ronspies, a spokesperson for Union Pacific, said she’s never received a complaint about viaduct accidents or clearance issues. She said part of that could be due to their location and frequent inspections. 

“More than 95% of UP’s bridges are inspected a minimum of twice annually by one of 29 specially-trained two-person bridge inspection teams, exceeding federal requirements. Bridges that are less than 10 years old and have no defects are inspected once annually,” Ronspies said. 

The Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) has little say in the inspection process. 

Paul Wappel, public information officer for the state department, said he hasn’t received any complaints of accidents in Champaign. In most cases, he said it’s fully between the police and railroad companies. Unless the bridge is over a road owned and maintained by the department, it doesn’t have any involvement. 

“The IDOT does monitor for falling debris and if obvious structural issues exist, the department then notifies the railroad if there are issues or if the traveling public notices something,” Wappel said. 

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