A single train crossing in Will County has the potential to make thousands of kids late for school, according to parents, a school official and bus drivers who spoke to NBC 5 Investigates.
The Oakland Avenue train crossing in suburban Crest Hill is adjacent to the bus depot used by First Student, a company responsible for transporting children to seven school districts across Will County. A First Student spokesperson said in recent months many school buses exiting the depot during morning and afternoon runs have been blocked at the crossing by slow or stopped trains.
First Student district manager Steven Merner said the random delays happen two or three times a week and can last up to forty-five minutes.
“We notify the districts. Unfortunately, it’s become such a frequent occurrence that they dread our phone calls when we do have the call them that the buses are late because of trains,” said First Student district manager Steven Merner.
The bus company said it is increasingly concerned about children waiting longer in the cold weather.
Melissa Miranda is a Joliet mother of eight who said her kids have been delayed recently.
“They wait inside the house now because it’s too cold to stand outside,” Miranda said. “It takes terribly long for the buses to get here sometimes in the morning.”
A district administrator for Will County School District 92 said delays are causing safety concerns and interrupting class time.
“We have some classmates that are here. Other classmates that are not here. The teacher then has to turn around and go back from the beginning on a lesson plan,” said assistant superintendent Teresa Bishop.
According to state records, the Oakland Avenue train crossing arm was activated for ten minutes or longer on 26 occasions in January 2017. The activations were recorded at various times of the day, however.
Still, things don’t seem any better a year later.
“We don’t want our kids standing out on corners for ten or fifteen minutes longer than they need to,” Bishop said.
Canadian National owns the tracks near the bus depot. A railroad spokesperson said stops are not planned. But they could be the result of trains slowing down, speeding up or crew changes.
The railroad also moved a safety device in recent years from Plainfield to an area closer to Crest Hill. The device, called a hotbox detector, monitors for overheating wheels and can stop a train. The decision to relocate the hotbox detector was made after residents of Plainfield complained about delays at several crossings.
“By removing the problems we were having with the north bound trains that caused tremendous headaches in Plainfield, it improves the overall traffic,” said CN spokesperson Patrick Wharton. “CN can continue to operate and serve Chicago and the American economy, but be sensitive to the needs of motorists in these communities.”
Wharton said school buses exiting the First Student depot can drive the opposite direction on Oakland Avenue and still make their runs on time. Additionally, the mayor of Crest Hill said the city has a good relationship with First Student and buses would be allowed to go through neighborhoods in the case of long train delays.
The bus company said it would prefer not to create so much noise in the neighborhoods.
“When you’re talking about five-thirty, six in the morning, you have a large number of diesel buses going through the community, it’s rather disturbing to all of our neighbors,” Merner said.
The Chicago area continues to be the busiest rail hub in the country and there are dozens of projects in the works to speed up traffic.