CTA system asleep at the wheel


March 28, 2014 6:30PM

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Updated: May 1, 2014 6:59AM

The Blue Line crash at O’Hare Airport last Monday revealed two big weaknesses at the CTA: personnel policies and automatic safety systems.

When about three dozen people are injured — and many more injuries and even deaths are avoided only because the crash occurs in the earliest hours of the morning — the CTA, like the train operator, is asleep at the wheel.

Why, we want to know, did the CTA do so little when that same operator fell asleep back on Feb. 1 and overshot the Belmont stop on the Blue Line?

And why did the automatic backup system, designed to stop the train when the conductor does not, fail to do so?

The CTA’s review necessarily must begin with a hard look at how the agency manages the scheduling of train operators on its “extra board” — those who fill in when regularly scheduled operators miss their shifts. That’s always been a problem of financial cost for the CTA . But in the aftermath of the O’Hare crash, it is clear the CTA must revise its scheduling to avoid using fill-ins who are just plain too tired to do the job safely. On Friday, the CTA said the train operator in Monday’s Blue Line accident had worked 55 hours the previous week. (The CTA rail union chief said it was 69.)

Let’s repeat that: 55 hours. Or, possibly: 69.

With respect to backup safeguards, Congress has ordered commuter rail systems around the country, such as Metra, to install GPS-based safety systems called “positive train control” by Dec. 15, 2015, at a cost of billions of dollars. PTC is designed to prevent train-to-train collisions, derailments caused by speeding and trains being switched to the wrong tracks. It’s among the National Transportation Safety Board’s priorities for transportation safety improvement. The CTA is exempt because, unlike heavy-rail commuter trains, it is not regulated by the Federal Railroad Administration. But that doesn’t mean this wouldn’t be a terrific additional safety measure for the CTA as well.

The CTA had placed a “trip arm” 41 feet from the end of the O’Hare platform that was designed to activate emergency brakes if the operator wasn’t stopping the train. It appears the trip arm did activate backup brakes, but too late to stop the train, which apparently was going about 25 mph.

The train also was equipped with a “deadman’s brake” that is supposed to stop the train if pressure on it is released. But that doesn’t work when the operator falls asleep but keeps pressure on the throttle.

In addition, the track had a bumping post designed to stop any train overshooting the end of the track. But the 200-ton, eight-car train rode right over the bumping post and up onto an escalator. Damage was estimated at $6 million.

It will be a long time before the CTA can put this accident behind it. NTSB investigators are examining the operator’s schedule and training and are exploring the failure of the safety devices. Lawsuits are being filed by people who were injured.

The CTA disputes a report that the agency leads the nation in collisions, saying most of those crashes occur in switching yards. And it has tried to put into a fair context a report that the agency reported 61 deaths from 2004 to 2013, saying no deaths have been caused in the past 10 years due to unsafe train operations.

As a result of last week’s accident, the CTA has lowered the speed limit for trains coming into O’Hare to 15 mph, down from 25. As the CTA and the NTSB continue their investigations, here’s hoping that’s about the only place they decide to go slow.

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