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updated: 3/31/2014 11:30 AM

Questions remain about Blue Line safety issues

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  • One passenger's photo reveals the aftermath of the March 24 Blue Line O'Hare Station shake-up. The crash has raised questions about systemic faults with CTA operations.

      One passenger's photo reveals the aftermath of the March 24 Blue Line O'Hare Station shake-up. The crash has raised questions about systemic faults with CTA operations.
    Courtesy of Milka Overton

  • This photo provided by the Chicago Transit Authority shows workers on March 28 repairing the escalator and surrounding area where a CTA commuter train crashed at O'Hare International Airport on Monday injuring 32 passengers. Service to O'Hare was restored Sunday afternoon.

      This photo provided by the Chicago Transit Authority shows workers on March 28 repairing the escalator and surrounding area where a CTA commuter train crashed at O'Hare International Airport on Monday injuring 32 passengers. Service to O'Hare was restored Sunday afternoon.
    Associated Press/CTA

  • Video: NTSB update on CTA crash

 
 

Transit expert Steve Schlickman rode the CTA's Blue Line March 25, one day after a train car rocketed up an escalator at O'Hare Station -- and he'll take it again.

But "I have a question as to whether there's anything systemic here," said Schlickman, referring to another freak accident on the Blue Line in 2013. "Is the overall management approach tight enough?"

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the 2:50 a.m. March 24 crash that sent 32 people to the hospital.

Chief among the unsolved mysteries are: Were accident prevention systems sufficient? And is staffing handled appropriately?

The train operator has admitted to dozing off on the job twice -- just before the crash and on Feb. 1 -- but her union faults a culture of overtime.

"Is there some overriding laxity occurring that is fostering these quirky accidents?" wondered Schlickman, a former Regional Transportation Authority executive director who leads UIC's Urban Transportation Center.

In fairness to the CTA, they have a decent safety record, Schlickman says. Chicago Transit Authority trains make about 2,145 trips each day, or 782,925 a year.

But it only takes one accident to take a healthy 26-year-old like Milka Overton and make moving her shoulder "excruciating," the federal worker injured in last Monday's accident told me.

A look at federal accident data indicates that between 2009 and 2013, there have been 76 collisions, 14 derailments and 13 fires on CTA rail. There was one passenger fatality in 2010 in addition to 182 passenger injuries and 65 employee injuries in the five-year period.

The NTSB has probed two other major Blue Line accidents in the last decade. In July 2006, the rear car of a train derailed, causing it to fishtail and catch fire in the Loop. More than 150 people were injured. The NTSB blamed poor track condition, ineffective management and safety oversight.

More recently, an empty CTA train hit one loaded with passengers at the Harlem Station in Forest Park during the morning rush Sept. 30. Thirty-three people were hurt.

The so-called ghost train had momentum, rolling for about a mile through five devices called trip arms located along the tracks that activated braking systems. Problem was, the train's controls were set so the brakes kept resetting, the NTSB said in a preliminary finding.

Some of the agency's recommendations seem to suggest that if common-sense ideas such as wedges under wheels had been in use, the train would have stayed in place. The NTSB also said the crash "raised concerns about the need for improved protection against unintended movement."

Two separate braking systems were triggered last week when the eight-car train passed a trip arm located about 40 feet from a massive rubber bumper at the end of the O'Hare track.

The fact the CTA is now moving the trip arms farther away from the terminus shows they were too close in the first place, surmises retired CTA attorney and Metra board director John Plante.

For the record, CTA administrators say they can't talk about the investigation because it's being handled by the NTSB now.

When I asked if the agency was checking trip arms at other dead-end stations, officials did not respond as of Sunday.

And along with all this talk of trip arms, electromagnetic brakes, trip switches and disc brakes (the list goes on), there's the woman at the center of it all. Last week's Blue Line operator has gone from a relatively quiet existence to the middle of a federal investigation and public scrutiny.

Conflicting stories keep surfacing.

Wednesday, NTSB investigator Ted Turpin said the operator told him she had dozed off in February as well. Significantly, the CTA broke its silence that day to clarify the operator told a supervisor she only "closed her eyes for a moment."

In that case, one car passed the station and the employee received a written warning, the CTA said.

On Friday, Amalgamated Transit Union President Robert Kelly said the operator had worked 69 hours in the seven days before the accident.

The CTA puts that figure at 55 hours, according to The Associated Press. She is on call-in status without regular work hours, a condition that falls to more junior employees who fill in for senior staffers who can't make it in to work.

"The incident points out issues involved in making decisions about investing in safety and what level of risk we accept in any system," said Jim LaBelle, a transportation specialist at Metropolis Strategies.

You should know

The CTA also announced it's reducing speeds heading into the O'Hare station from 25 mph to 15 mph. So, if a CTA Blue Line train is traveling at 25 mph, how far can it travel in 30 seconds?

About 1,110 feet, my team of mathematicians say.

Your voice

Reader Paul Wickland, who works in Wood Dale, had this to say about the crash: "I agree that the train operator should have been terminated for her previous dozing off at work. At present, she should be immediately terminated. In my opinion, sleeping on the job results in an immediate termination of employment at perhaps all private sector employers. I can tell you that is the case at my employer.

"The failure to maintain an appropriate alertness when operating a transportation device whereby the operator is responsible for the safety of the passengers is unconscionable."

Upcoming

Pace and the CTA are switching their current fare systems to a new system dubbed Ventra. Suburbanites who commute into the Loop can get help transferring balances from existing fare cards onto free Ventra cards at events every Tuesday from 3 to 7 p.m. at CTA headquarters, 567 W. Lake St., Chicago. The deadline for the Ventra move is July 1.

Gridlock alert

Time to slim down your car. IDOT has announced width restrictions on the ramp from eastbound I-90 to southbound Cumberland, which will shrink to 9 feet, 6 inches starting Thursday as part of a rebuilding project.

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