In case of an emergency, a CTA train operator can push a red button to trigger powerful electromagnetic brakes that could have stopped the lead car of a Blue Line train from catapulting onto an escalator Monday at the O'Hare station.
The fact that last resort wasn't used reinforces concerns the train operator was dozing or points to a major mechanical failure, safety expert John Plante said.
If the train operator applied the emergency brakes, "the train would never have hit the bumping post (at the station terminus). It should have been a good car-length away, unless of course the system didn't work," said Plante, a former CTA attorney and current Metra board member.
But that's not the only braking question the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating.
An automatic braking system did deploy before the crash, NTSB lead investigator Ted Turpin said at a briefing Tuesday, but it wasn't enough to stop the eight-car train. Asked why the automatic braking system didn't prevent the lead car from jumping the tracks, Turpin said, "that's an analysis we have to perform."
Data indicates the train was traveling at 25 mph as it neared the station, which wasn't an unusual speed, authorities said. More than 30 people were taken to local hospitals with minor injuries and the O'Hare Station is closed until further notice as a result of the 2:50 a.m. Monday crash.
A passenger filed a lawsuit on Tuesday claiming she is unable to go to work at an airport newsstand because of injuries she received in the crash. Niakesha Thomas accused the CTA of negligence in a suit filed in Cook County circuit court.
Turpin said he intended to interview the operator of the train Tuesday afternoon.
A transit union official said the train operator "might have dozed off" in the moments before the crash.
Amalgamated Transit Union Local 308 President Robert Kelly said Monday the CTA employee told him she was extremely tired at the time of the crash. The one-year employee started work at 8:40 p.m. Sunday. She had worked a lot of overtime recently but had 16 hours off before her Sunday shift.
"We always take into consideration the fatigue factor," Turpin said. Turpin could not say if the train operator had applied the brakes that were under her control.
The automatic braking system is located alongside the tracks and uses multiple components including stop arms, or levers.
Plante, who specialized in emergency preparedness and risk management with the CTA, said the automatic braking system is designed more for a "controlled, slow stop."
He noted that if the train was going at 25 mph when it neared the station "you should be able to stop the train safely ... it may be (going) a little quick." Another factor the NTSB might consider is that there's a downward slope for incoming trains at the O'Hare station, Plante added.
The NTSB unit includes experts who examine tracks, signals, mechanisms, equipment, protocols and human factors. In addition to 41 station cameras, the NTSB will review data from signal recorders and video cameras on the train cars and head car.
The derailment propelled the train's head car off the tracks, onto the platform and partially onto the escalator. A second car was lifted up by the momentum of the head car, officials said.
As for when the station will reopen, Turpin said, "I hope it will be less than a week."
While the investigation continues, shuttles are running between O'Hare and Rosemont every five to six minutes.