The 1999 Bourbonnais, Illinois, train crash was a train-truck collision between Amtrak's southbound City of New Orleans passenger train and a semi truck in the village of Bourbonnais, Illinois, near the city of Kankakee. Most of the train derailed, killing 11 people. A National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation into the accident attributed the cause to the truck driver trying to beat the train across a grade crossing. However, the Illinois State Police investigation found Track Circuit malfunction as the cause. The NTSB's recommendations from the accident included increased enforcement of grade crossing signals, the installation of event recorders at all new or improved grade crossings, and procedures to provide emergency responders with accurate lists of all crew members and passengers aboard trains. The city of Bourbonnais erected a memorial near the site to commemorate those killed in the accident.
The collision occurred at 9:47 pm Central (local) time on March 15, 1999, in Bourbonnais, Illinois, in the United States on the Illinois Central Railroad. The southbound Amtrak train 59, the City of New Orleans, hit a semi truck loaded with steel that was blocking a grade crossing. The collision resulted in the deaths of at least 11 of the train's passengers, 122 injuries and over US$14 million in damage.
Both of the train's locomotives and 11 of the train's 14 passenger cars derailed; the derailed cars hit two of 10 freight cars on a siding next to the mainline.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) attributed the cause of the wreck to the truck driver's reaction to the grade crossing signals. Thinking he could beat the train across the tracks, the driver chose to proceed onto the tracks in front of the train. The driver reported that the crossing signal did not activate until his vehicle was "right on top of the track," but he also stated that he did not want to brake quickly to avoid a shifting load that could hit the back of the truck's cab. Witnesses stated that the gates came down after the truck had entered the grade crossing. One witness stated that the gate clipped the truck's trailer and that part of the gate may have broken off as a result.
The crash was investigated by several agencies. The truck driver, John R. Stokes, had been convicted of numerous traffic violations in the past, and his trucking company, Melco, had been cited for safety violations. The NTSB's investigation placed the fault of the collision on Stokes and his failure to yield at the grade crossing, but the investigation by the Illinois State Police found that the train detection system had failed to detect the fast-moving (79 mph) Amtrak train at the beginning of the approach circuit and turn on the flashing lights and gates for the federally required 20 seconds. A witness saw the late activation and the gates coming down just as the front of the locomotive reached the crossing. That conclusion was confirmed by the chief engineer for the company that manufactured the track detection equipment, Harmon Industries.
The Illinois attorney general's reviewed the case for criminal charges, but faced conflicting agency conclusions as to the cause of the crash. Ultimately it was determined that the evidence would be insufficient to charge Stokes for the eleven deaths. "Stokes never faced more serious charges, such as involuntary manslaughter, in the accident that also injured 122 people because prosecutors at the time did not believe they could meet the burden of proof," said a spokeswoman for the Illinois attorney general's office. Instead, the prosecutors obtained a grand jury indictment against Stokes in September 2001 for one count of Willful Violation of Maximum Driving Time in violation of Illinois statute 625 ILCS 5/18b-108 (incorporating 49 C.F.R. 395.3) and Willful Violation of Driver's Record of Duty in violation of Illinois statute 625 ILCS 5/18b-108 (incorporating 49 C.F.R. 395.8), both felonies. He was found guilty on both counts in August, 2004.
Stokes was sentenced on September 21, 2004, to two years in prison for logbook and hours of service violations. At sentencing, Kankakee County Judge Clark Erickson stated that it was not proven if a lack of rest played a factor in the crash but that he believed Stokes would have been more able to make safe driving decisions if he had been fully rested.
Stokes was later found to have had multiple violations that required his attendance of traffic school five times in three different counties, which should have resulted in his license being suspended at the time of the crash. He died in February 2007.
At least thirty-one civil cases were filed in various courts against parties involved in the crash. In Illinois, the court placed the cause of the crash squarely on Stokes, finding:
“The manner in which the load of rebar was anchored and secured to the flatbed trailer had nothing to do with the cause of the accident. The accident arose from Stokes’ conduct in ignoring the flashing warning lights at the railroad crossing and attempting to drive through the crossing ahead of an oncoming train traveling at nearly 80 miles per hour, where the resulting collision caused pieces of rebar to be thrown onto the tracks derailing the train."
Prior to one trial, Stokes and his trucking company, Melco, settled with all the plaintiffs.
As a result of the crash, the NTSB made several recommendations:To the highway maintainers:
Review the effectiveness of current railroad grade crossing signals and the use of traffic division islands in deterring motorists from trying to drive around crossing gates.
To the United States Secretary of Transportation:
Provide further grants and incentives to increase enforcement of grade crossing signals.
To the United States Federal Railroad Administration:
Require the installation of event recorders to monitor gate position at new or improved grade crossings.
To the railroads:
Initiate procedures to get accurate passenger and crew lists to emergency responders.
Implement improved crew accountability procedures on reserved passenger trains.
Install event recorders on all new or improved grade crossings.
Following the collision, the city of Bourbonnais erected a memorial to the people who died at the intersection of Highway 45 and 102, across from the Olivet Nazarene University campus. On January 17, 2006, the Village Board of Bourbonnais voted to permanently close the grade crossing where the accident occurred. A replacement crossing will be built at another location nearby that will, the Village Board hopes, prevent similar crashes from occurring in the future.