Between the Lights: The 1995 Fox River Grove (USA) Level Crossing Collision

Max S
16 min readFeb 25, 2024


Fox River Grove is a town of 4702 people (as of 2020) in the northeastern United States of America, located in the state of Illinois 72km/45mi east of Rockford and 59km/37mi northwest of Chicago (both measurements in linear distance).

The location of Fox River Grove in the northeastern USA.

The town lies on the Union Pacific Northwest Line (UN-NW), a single- to triple-tracked non-electrified branch line connecting Chicago with Harvard (Illinois) along 23 stations on 123km/76mi of track. The line is used just about exclusively for commuter rail services provided under the “Metra”-brand, which is a cooperation between several rail service providers (including Union Pacific) handling passenger trains in and around Chicago.

The rail line runs through Fox River Grove in double-tracked configuration, running parallel to US Route 14 (often shortened US 14) all the way. US 14 is a major road traffic artery between Chicago (Illinois) and the border to the state of Wisconsin at the city of Harvard (Illinois). The site of the accident sees US 14 consist of two lines and a turning lane per direction at the time of the accident, allowing cars to turn from the main road into the smaller Algonquin Road which crosses the rail line via a level crossing to the immediate southwest of US 14.

The site of the accident seen from above today. The bus was coming from the southwest (bottom-left of the image) while the train was travelling towards the southeast

The Vehicles Involved

Metra train number 624 was a commuter rail service from Crystal Lake (Illinois) to Chicago, consisting of seven bilevel passenger cars propelled by Metra locomotive number 148, a EMD F40PH. The F40PH is a four-axle diesel locomotive developed mainly for short-distance passenger services, introduced in 1975. The type quickly became the backbone of regional and commuter rail services across much of the USA, seeing over 500 units made. Each F40PH measures 17.12m/56ft in length at a weight of 123 metric tons and is powered by a V16 diesel engine, allowing top speeds of up to 177kph/110mph depending on the gearbox fitted.

The locomotive was pushing the train at the time of the accident, with the driver (referred to in the USA as an Engineer) being located in a cab-car on the other end of the train. Cab cars (also referred to as control cars) are special passenger cars fitted with headlights and a more or less complete driver’s cabin at one end, allowing remote operation of the locomotive. They are popular in regional passenger services as they allow a train to turn around without needing the locomotive to be moved to the other end of the train. The leading end of the cab car was painted with red and white stripes, a standard livery intended to make the otherwise silver train easier to spot. The train had a total length of 198m/650ft at a weight of 579 metric tons, carrying 120 passengers and 2 conductors according to the report. It was driven by 45 years old Mister Dotson, who had been working as a train driver for 18 years and was fully licensed for the route he was on.

A bilevel Metra-train with a leading cab-car, near-identical to the one involved in the accident, photographed in 2005.

A school bus carrying students from Fox River Grove to the Cary-Grove High School in neighboring Cary (Illinois) was travelling westbound through Fox River Grove at the time of the accident, carrying 35 passengers. The bus used was a 1992 ATC (American Transportation Company) school bus, based off a chassis and powertrain provided by Navistar (an Illinois-based truck and bus manufacturer) and fitted with 71 seats. The two-axle bus measured 11.58m/38ft in length on a 7m/23ft wheelbase and had an estimated weight at the time of the accident (occupants included) of 10.6 metric tons according to the report. The bus was driven by 54 years old Miss Catencamp, working as a substitute driver on the day of the accident. She had been performing occasional drives for the past 8 years while being mainly hired as the assistant transportation director for the school district, but held the necessary licenses to fill in as a driver.

A 1995 Navistar-based 71 passenger school bus, very similar to the one involved in the accident. I couldn’t find a photo of the exact type involved.

The Accident

The empty bus departs its garage on the 25th of October 1995 at 6:35am, 20 minutes behind schedule. It picks up the first group of students by 6:55am in the southwestern part of Fox River Grove, gradually filling more and more seats before eventually turning into Algonquin Road, heading northeast towards US 14 with a load of 35 students on board, filling about half the seats. Metra #624 has departed Crystal Lake in the meantime, heading southbound to Chicago. The level crossing’s sensors pick up the approaching train at 7:11:28am, locating it 939m/3080ft from the center of the crossing at a speed of 106kph/66mph.

The traffic light system at the adjacent intersection between Algonquin Road and US 14 is tripped at 7:11:36am, starting the process to turn the lights for main road traffic red a second later. By that point the train is 701m/2300ft from the crossing at unchanged speed. Mister Dotson later states spotting the bus moving into the crossing “at very low speed” at that same moment, likely due to the traffic lights beyond the crossing prohibiting the bus from entering US 14 at this point. Students aboard the bus notice that the back of the bus is stopped across the rail line as Miss Catencamp brings it to a stop at the traffic lights, just as the lights on the crossing activate and the barriers lower against the sides of the bus. A tumultuous situation arises aboard the bus as various students shout to each other or to Miss Catencamp, trying to notify her of the dangerous situation.

The traffic light for the bus turns green at 7:11:54am, but Miss Catencamp fails to notice. The train is now 183m/600ft from the crossing, travelling at 108kph/67mph. Mister Dotson, realizing that the bus is not moving out of the train’s path, sounds the horn and triggers an emergency stop in a desperate but hopeless attempt to avoid disaster. 76mm/3in of the bus reach over the left hand rail to the right, while the train protrudes 1m/3ft past the same rail to the left by design.

The emergency brake actuation barely reduces the train’s speed in the short distance left before, at 7:12am, Metra #624 slams into the rear left side of the bus at 97kph/60mph, hitting the long overhang beyond the rear axle. The impact tears the bus’ body, interior included, off the frame and throws it into the grass between US 14 and the rail line, leaving the bent frame with the engine, hood and wheels sitting approximately where the train hit the bus. 5 students die on impact as the left rear side of the bus is compressed, with the 180° rotation of the bus throwing its occupants every-which way. Miss Catencamp and the remaining 26 passengers initially survive with injuries, but two students later die from their injuries after being rushed to hospital.


The train, having suffered only minor damage in the collision, comes to a stop 433m/1422ft down the line with its occupants unharmed. No further mind is paid to it by responders until police arrives to question Mister Dotson.

The town’s police chief happened to be sitting at the intersection next to the site as the disaster unfolded, he immediately radios for assistance, cutting down response times by skipping the usual path across emergency calls and the dispatch-center. Passing motorists try to render first aid to the survivors from the bus until ambulances and a fire truck arrive at the site by 7:18am. A disaster is declared by 7:27am, with local hospitals sending doctors to the site for on-site treatment of survivors.

The truck’s frame and body ended up facing opposite directions. The bus’ body flying off the frame also mowed down the traffic light. The bus’ body is still longer than the space between the stop-line and the tracks, even without the hood.

The primary cause of the collision is quickly determined, with the rear of the bus obstructing (“fouling”) the level crossing as Miss Catencamp stopped at the red traffic light. Surviving students tell the investigation that they initially joked about their substitute driver failing to notice the level crossing closing on the back of the bus before starting to shout and scream at her to move the bus forward when she continued to not react to it. Miss Catencamp recalls the shouting and screaming, but explains that it occurred in such a chaotic fashion that she focused on trying to sort out what kind of crisis was unfolding among the students, taking her attention away from the traffic light just before it turned green.

The investigation finds that Miss Catencamp had never driven this particular bus-route before, and had never crossed the rail line at this site at all, not even in her private car. She was only driving that route that day because the regular driver was absent and the usual substitute was already filling in on a different route. She recalled stopping ahead of the crossing, checking for an approaching train as it was demanded by the guidelines, and then pulling up to the traffic lights beyond the crossing as she knew she had to use the bus to trip a sensor near the stop-line in order for the lights to change. She didn’t think that she was protruding into the crossing once she pulled up to the lights, and didn’t recall noticing anything out of the usual or hearing the train’s horn before the collision occurred.

The impact of the heavy train bent the back of the bus’ massive frame 45° to the side.

Another major factor in the accident was found to be an expansion of US 14 performed only a few years before the accident. The road had originally consisted of just one lane per direction and no turning lanes, creating a relatively constant 18m/60ft gap between the rail line and the main road throughout Fox River Grove. The Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) eventually decided to expand/redesign US 14 in the late 1980s in order to encourage development and reduce congestion. The project involved the doubling of the lanes per direction along with the addition of turning lanes for cars turning into Algonquin Road. There were no developments beyond some parking lanes between the rail line and the road, while the other side had several businesses already along it, so the decision was made to perform the expansion of the road entirely on the rail-side of US 14. This cut the distance between US 14 and the rail line at the site down to approximately 9m/30ft. Too little for the 11.58m/38ft school buses used in the area even before one subtracts space for the stop line.

A sketch from the report showing an approximation of the bus’ position immediately before the accident. Note that distances here are measured to the rail, which a train protrudes past by design.

The level crossing at the site was known as a so-called interconnected crossing, as the signaling-system for the rail line had to communicate with the traffic light system at the adjacent intersection. This was meant to ensure that vehicles waiting to turn into US 14 wouldn’t be sitting on the crossing, and likewise vehicles turning off US 14 wouldn’t end up queueing from the crossing back onto US 14, obstructing the straight-across lanes of the main road. However, the only sensors to trip the traffic lights for turning into US 14 were located between the crossing and the intersection, meaning large vehicles were forced to cross the tracks and pull up to the stop-line at the intersection which, especially after US 14’s expansion, put them at a high risk of protruding into the crossing.

Making things worse yet was the fact that the level crossing and the intersection’s traffic lights were linked, but their programming was done completely independently. The intersection was the jurisdiction of IDOT while the level crossing was in the hands of Union Pacific, and there was no record of any communication between the two entities regarding the programming of the traffic control systems.

The level crossing’s lights activated 20 seconds before a train reached the center of the crossing, but the programming of the adjacent traffic light only allowed cars to leave Algonquin Road no sooner than 14 seconds later, giving them a mere 6 seconds at most to clear the road (and in the case of several or large vehicles, the crossing) before a train would pass. In some cases, the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board, the entity running the investigation) found, they got just 2 seconds.

Investigators standing next to the front of the bus’ body, with its rear wheels visible behind it.

The investigation found that the time span between the traffic lights on Algonquin Road turning green and a train reaching the crossing, actions that are linked in order to avoid vehicles being trapped on the crossing, had previously been significantly longer, but IDOT had changed the timing of the traffic lights a few months before the accident to improve traffic flow. They had decided to “lock” the traffic light on Algonquin Road to red during rush hour times with the pedestrian-crossing across the road set to permanent green unless the sensors in the road detected a waiting vehicle. This was meant to ease the flow of pedestrians along US 14 as they would be less likely to have to wait at the lights.

This new setup meant that, whenever a vehicle was detected at the lights on Algonquin Road, the light couldn’t switch to green right away as pedestrians who might be in the road had to be given time to reach the sidewalk first. The time span that had to be allocated for this process was standardized across the state, delaying a switch of the traffic lights by 12 seconds. The investigation performed a survey of rush hour foot traffic at the site in May 1996 and found it to be “extremely light”, concluding that the IDOT-engineers who decided to change the traffic light timing failed to recognize the undue risk to road traffic on Algonquin Road posed by the new settings which were to the advantage of, in practice, just about non-existent pedestrians.

The old setting would have seen the bus get a green light 12 seconds earlier than it did, which would have almost certainly meant Miss Catencamp would have pulled into US 14 well before the train reached the crossing, avoiding the accident. The report notes that, as it happened, Miss Catencamp would have had to move her bus into a technically active pedestrian crossing (and intersection), running a red light in the process, if she had been suspicious about the back of the large vehicle extending into the level crossing. Not something most bus drivers would do lightly, especially if one considers the chance that she could have been wrong and the consequences such a traffic offence carries. One also has to consider the fact that Miss Catencamp had very little experience with vehicles of that size along with no experience of the site at all, so estimating the position of the bus’ far end must have been quite difficult for her.

The back of the bus’ body as it sat in the wreckage, with severe compression-damage from the train’s impact.

The official report was released in October 1996, four days after the accident’s first anniversary. It blames the accident primarily on Miss Catencamp stopping at the lights without realizing that the back of her bus was still in the crossing, but explains the several factors that left the figurative deck stacked against her rather than declaring pure negligence as the cause of the accident. The legal system largely agreed with the NTSB’s findings, with Miss Catencamp never being put on trial for her role in the accident as no criminal degree of fault could be found.

The report closes with no less than 29 recommendations to over a dozen parties, aiming to reduce the likelihood of a repetition. Most of the recommendations were about reviewing and improving the interconnection between level crossings and intersection traffic lights at similar sites and improving training for motorists, especially those of unusually large vehicles (primarily buses and commercial trucks) regarding the behavior around and dangers of level crossings. The Federal Highway Administration was tasked with introducing physical markings that show how far a train will reach beyond the tracks at a level crossing, making it easier to see if one’s vehicle was safe even if it may be caught within barriers, while the IDOT was told to review all interconnected crossings with similarly close distances and ensure both spacing of the components and their timing doesn’t create unnecessary dangers as it did on Algonquin Road. The National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS) was recommended to improve the identification of hazardous locations on their bus routes and ensure all individuals driving the buses had sufficient knowledge of them. They were also asked to review installation and usage of radios on school buses along with the bus’ sound insulation, as Miss Catencamp couldn’t recall hearing the horn of the approaching train over the combined noise from the students, engine and radio.

Lastly, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, National Association of County Engineers, American Public Works Association, Institute of Transportation Engineers, Association of American Railroads, American Short Line Railroad Association and American Public Transit Association were asked to inform their members of the circumstances of the tragedy and inform the members of the importance of liberally exchanging information about level crossings of a similar configuration.

The IDOT reacted by inspecting 188 similar level crossings, finding 24 to pose undue dangers which were subsequently reworked. The local school district also changed their bus routes after the report was released, reducing the number of routes crossing any rail lines from 70% at the time of the accident to 10% in 1997.

An investigator documents the dashboard of the bus after the accident, which, along with the steering wheel, stayed behind as the bus’ body was torn off the frame in the crash.

A small memorial was set up to the south of the intersection, between US 14 and the rail line. The stone-lined flowerbed features a carving of seven angels along with seven small angel-figurines, one for each victim. It also holds a granite stone with two illuminated memorial plaques reading:

Dedicated to the young people who survived and all those whose lives have been affected by the bus-train accident of October 25, 1995

…on one side and…

The tragic accident that occured on this spot October 25, 1995 will serve as a reminder to all that the future can be changed in an instant and that the past holds memories of inspiration, hope and love.
In Remembrance of [Names of Victims]

…on the other. Another memorial was set up at Cary-Grove High School, the bus’ destination, called the “Friendship Circle”. The memorial at the school consists of a circular paved area lined by seven Montgomery Blue Spruce trees. 36 white stones set in a semicircle represent the people aboard the bus, including the driver, while a plaque reads:

The Friendship Circle dedicated to treasured friendships which shall be forever in our hearts.

The level crossing was also renamed “Seven Angels Crossing” in 2015, matching the symbolism from the adjacent memorial. It’s still as close to US 14 as it was before, but improved programming now gives significantly more time for vehicles to leave the area around the crossing before a train reaches it.

The memorial at the site of the accident, as seen from US 14.

A newspaper reporter tracked down several people connected to the accident in 2020, working on an article to be published on the 25th anniversary. Mister Dotson, then 70 years old and long retired, explained how he has relived the accident in nightmares countless times, always waking up shaking right before his train hits the bus. He says he won’t be at the memorial service to be held at the site later that year, due to the memories of what happened still being “fresh” in everyone’s mind. One of the people who did intended to go to the service was Mister Lucas, then 39 years old, who survived the accident as one of the students on the bus. He suffered severe head injuries, costing him just about any memory he had from before he regained consciousness 10 days after the accident. “I am 39 years old, and I have 25 years worth of memories,” as he puts it in the interview. When he woke up he had strangers at his bedside, having no recollection of his parents. The doctors said memories would “trickle back in”, but they never did.

The article also talks about Miss Owens, whose daughter had survived the initial accident and got airlifted to hospital where she lost the fight for her life the following day. Miss Owens told the reporter that she keeps selected items from her oldest daughter in a wooden chest in her bedroom, including some of her drawings, a shirt and VHS-tapes which she still watches sometimes when she misses her daughter all too much. She talks about trying to drown her grief for years before finding a less destructive way of trying to cope, with the moment her “main glass” fell from her hand and shattered becoming the turning point. Stephanie’s father died in 2008, “from a broken heart” as her little sister says.

A somewhat encouraging story comes from the Marino brothers, identical twins who survived being on the bus. Despite still suffering from mental and physical consequences by 2020 they went on to become paramedics with the local fire department, as did Mister Lucas.

Something that doesn’t come up anywhere is anger. What happened at the level crossing almost 29 years ago was a tragic accident that tore families apart, but none of those who suffered injury or loss express anger towards any individual involved, at least not publicly.

Miss Owens’ memorial chest, containing various keepsakes of her eldest daughter whom she lost in the accident.


I apologize for getting unusually personal in the last section, but working on this article, especially reading the interviews, was the first time I got emotional since I started this blog, and I found myself unable to omit it.


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Max S

Train crash reports and analysis, published weekly.