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History Repeats Itself Over Shermer Road

A North Shore native reflects on Wednesday's collapsed bridge and recalls a similar event more than 30 years ago.

I still remember a news story that came on my family’s TV one day when I was an 11-year-old living in Wilmette. It was about a harrowing freight train wreck in Glenview. The year was 1974.  

The results of that accident were eerily similar to the one that occurred July 4th; the Shermer Road rail bridge collapsed and, according to the Chicago Tribune, left a pileup containing 22 twisted railcars, bent track, spilled cargo and what was left of the bridge. Fortunately, that time, no one was hurt.   

Back then, a friend of mine named Eric Lathrop lived near what is now the Metra North Line. He was astonished when freight trains suddenly appeared on the tracks in Winnetka. Then as now, that line was used almost exclusively for commuter passenger rail service. The freight trains Lathrop saw had been re-routed so that the Chicago and North Western railroad, which owned the tracks over Shermer as well as the north line, could continue making deliveries while the bridge in Glenview was being replaced.

For now, the railroads have yet to tell Patch what changes have been made in order for them to keep their freight service operating. However, yesterday I saw a long CP Rail freight headed north near the Forest Glen stop on the Metra Milwaukee North line, a place I have not seen such trains before. 

According to the ’74 TV story, investigators found that the wheels of a train car on a North Western freight first left the tracks and then scarred hundreds of railroad ties before catching in a switch near the bridge. The latter caused more cars to derail and pile onto the bridge. A witness then told the TV news crew that she saw car after car of the train fall onto Shermer Road. 

As for the railroads, only the names have changed since the first collapse. The Union Pacific bought the Chicago and North Western. Meanwhile, on Metra’s Milwaukee North Line, CP Rail freights replaced those of the Milwaukee Road. The former’s connect to the UP line near Shermer, like the Milwaukee Road’s once did. (Metra, in turn, replaced the Milwaukee Road’s commuter trains that once ran through Northbrook.)

On Friday, the Union Pacific announced the suspected cause of this week’s wreck to the Chicago Tribune. It was a “rail kink” caused by the recent heatwave. The results of the government’s investigation will follow. I don’t recall whether the TV news story about the seventies wreck revealed what caused the first car in that accident to derail. 

But like others who’ve posted their thoughts online the past few days, I’m aware that it could have been me or someone I know who was killed when the bridge collapsed again. The lives that were lost were no less important. 

I’m also aware that there was a derailment near the bridge three years ago, and that any derailment is a serious accident. In coming days, I hope the Union Pacific won’t just say that the bridge that was destroyed last week will be replaced. But that their rails which will cross over it will be safer than the ones that were there in the 1970s, and last week.

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Ed Brill July 09, 2012 at 12:04 PM
Glad that someone else remembers. It was the first thought in my mind though likewise I was pretty young when it happened back in the 70s. Thanks for sharing.
Judith S Brill July 09, 2012 at 05:14 PM
I remember taking my children and going to see the train accident in the 70's. At that time the road south of the bridge was under the jurisdiction of the Glenview Naval Air Station. This time, the heat could have expanded the rails but they were supposedly checked earlier in the day. Judy Brill
Christian Hostetler July 21, 2012 at 06:58 PM
Sun kinks can happen in a matter of a few minutes, and the weight of a approaching train cause it to appear and/or worsen, so they may have not necessarily seen it anyway.

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