What caused CTA train crash? Braking glitches, 'communications meltdown' questioned

From braking system flaws to questions over why a massive snowplow sat on a Yellow Line track as a CTA train approached, perplexities keep surfacing about a Nov. 16 crash.

The southbound train was traveling 26.9 mph when it struck snow removal equipment being used for training near the Howard station at 10:31 a.m. A total of 38 people were injured.

One angle National Transportation Safety Board investigators are probing is a "design problem" with the train's braking algorithm.

"We know the CTA system saw the snow equipment ahead," NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said at a Nov. 18 briefing. "They knew it was going to be there.

"We also know from our calculations that this train, on this day, was designed to stop within 1,780 feet. It didn't.

Based on preliminary information, "the braking distance should have been longer," Homendy added. "A brand-new system today with same track - they should have had 2,745 feet to stop that train, not 1,780 feet."

However, University of Illinois at Chicago Urban Transportation Center Director P.S. Sriraj says he's most worried about a "a classic communications meltdown."

"The snowplow was on the same track as the train. That is the more important thing that could have been avoided. The operator definitely was not expecting something else on the track at that time," said Sriraj, a civil engineering professor.

"Any time you have a live track, you don't put anything else on that track. So there was a slip-up somewhere in communications. Maybe the track got changed for that particular train just before its departure. My main question is how did this incident get triggered?" Sriraj asked.

Safety expert John Plante is curious about the circumstances surrounding the snow removal equipment.

"Why was it there? Why was it stopped - was it waiting for signal clearance?" wondered Plante, a former CTA attorney and Metra board member.

He also noted that prior to the collision, the train was coming around a slight curve. So, "what were the (operator's) sightlines? When did he first notice the snowplow ahead? And what were his reactions" with braking?

CTA officials couldn't comment on specifics as the case is in the NTSB's hands.

"CTA continues to meet with the team from the NTSB," a spokesman said. "We reiterate and continue to demonstrate our pledge of full cooperation throughout the entire investigation. We continue to wish a full and speedy recovery for everyone injured in this incident."

Meanwhile attorney Joseph T. Murphy, who represents four injured passengers in lawsuits, said he's struck by Homendy's comments about the train's brakes.

"The NTSB is saying this is a design flaw and that is more alarming to me even than if it was simply human error," said Murphy, a partner with Clifford Law Firm.

"Did the CTA know about it before and if they did, why didn't they do anything about it? If they didn't, they should have known about it," Murphy said.

Riders need to know, "is this a design flaw with one train or the entire CTA fleet?"

The Yellow Line, formerly known as the Skokie Swift, remained closed as of Sunday.

You should know

Pace recently celebrated the launch of its new Pulse Dempster Line, which promises bus trips of 50 minutes between Evanston and O'Hare International Airport. The service features purple buses and designated stations. It runs on Dempster and Mannheim roads with limited stops in Evanston, Skokie, Morton Grove, Niles, Park Ridge, Des Plaines, Rosemont and Chicago.

Your voice

After a recent column about drivers parked on the I-190 ramp shoulder leading to O'Hare, Rosemont Mayor and state Rep. Brad Stephens said he regularly tells Illinois State Police about the scofflaws.

"To say the least it really grinds my gears!" Stephens wrote. "CDA provides convenient cellphone lots and signage directing people to it but most simply don't pay attention. As you can imagine, ISP can't park an officer there as that wouldn't be a wise use of officers' time. I have considered introducing a bill that would allow camera enforcement of the 'no parking' on the shoulder but have wrestled with - is that the right solution and will it prevent people from creating the hazard."

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NTSB investigators on the scene of a Nov. 16 collision between a CTA Yellow Line train and snow removal equipment in Chicago. Courtesy of NTSB
NTSB investigators are piecing together the cause of a Nov. 16 collision between a CTA Yellow Line train and snow removal equipment in Chicago. Courtesy of NTSB
NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy reviews the aftermath of a collision between a CTA train and rail equipment in Chicago, which occurred Nov. 16. Courtesy of NTSB
Authorities work the scene of a CTA train crash Nov. 16 on the Yellow Line. Investigators are looking at braking system flaws as a possible cause of the collision. Courtesy Chicago Fire Department
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