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CTA crash likely caused by ‘mechanical malfunction,’ suburban mayor says

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Updated: November 3, 2013 6:27AM

Normal service resumed on the Blue Line early Wednesday, the day after the mayor of Forest Park said video from at least three different CTA cameras failed to detect anyone hopping on or off an out-of-service Blue Line train that barrelled, unmanned, into an occupied train at the Harlem station.

As a result, Forest Park police have concluded that so far, there is no evidence of criminal activity in the Monday morning rush-hour crash that injured 33, none critically, said Mayor Anthony Calderone.

“From all indications of a very thorough and comprehensive examination at the crash site by our investigators, they certainly are of the opinion that no human was on there,’’ Calderone said. They are “mostly leaning toward some type of mechanical malfunction.”

The investigation of the apparent runaway train has since been taken over by the National Transportation Safety Board, which had investigators at the crash scene much of the day Tuesday.

“That train shouldn’t have been moving,’’ Calderone said Tuesday. “It’s bizarre. ... The NTSB has a complicated task in front of them, and that’s trying to get to the bottom of it.’’

Amalgamated Transit Union Local 308 President Robert Kelly, who joined NTSB investigators at the crash scene Tuesday, has said that the train slipped past two switches and an internal device that should have stopped it before it rammed into a train loaded with some 40 passengers at the Harlem station.

Its journey apparently took it from the Forest Park CTA service yard, where it was awaiting repairs; past a turnaround; through the Forest Park station and then into the Harlem station. CTA officials said the “out-of-service” train was traveling the wrong way on outbound tracks when it crashed into the occupied outbound Blue Line train at Harlem.

Kelly noted that trains must be started by a human being, who uses one key to open the train door and another to start the train. Operators must get clearance to move from both a supervisor and the control center, he said.

Each train has an indicator that flashes red when the train is approaching an object, and the motorman is supposed to brake within seconds of that light going on, Kelly said. If the motorman doesn’t, an automatic train control is supposed to go into effect and stop the train, he said.

In addition, Kelly noted that the track the train went down has switches that are supposed to trip when a train goes the wrong way or moves at the wrong time.

“In my 27 years, never have I seen a train just start up and start moving,’’ Kelly said Monday.

Before the NTSB stepped in, Forest Park police did their own investigation to determine if any criminal charges should be pursued, Calderone said.

Because no one was observed at the helm at the time of the crash, among other things, Calderone said, police were trying to determine if someone could have gotten on the train, started it, and jumped off before it crashed at the Harlem station. CTA officials have said the train did not appear broken into.

Forest Park police reviewed CTA videos from several cameras, including the Forest Park service yard where the out-of-service train had been awaiting repair since Sept. 23; the Forest Park station platform; and the Harlem station, Calderone said.

Although police could not observe every minute of the train’s half-mile to three-quarter mile journey, Calderone said, “They saw enough of it that they were able to make a determination that nobody was on or in the train.”

In addition, he said, police found “no signs” that anyone had been in the cab of the train.

So how did a train that requires a human being to turn it on get powered up?

“That’s the $64,000 question,’’ Calderone said.

However, Calderone was not certain how long the train was observable on video before it started moving. He also did not know if cameras captured a clear view of the door of the train that an operator would have normally used to enter the train.

Meanwhile, how and when any information about the NTSB probe would be released was also in question Tuesday.

The NTSB’s office of public affairs ­— which releases information about NTSB investigations — was “closed until further notice’’ Tuesday, due to the first government shutdown in 17 years, according a voicemail message at the agency’s Washington, D.C., office.

The crash that caused mayhem on the occupied Blue Line train Monday morning triggered the shut down of the Blue Line’s Harlem station until early Wednesday morning. As a result, the entire Blue Line was wracked by delays Monday night and Tuesday morning.

To speed up the Tuesday evening rush hour commute, CTA officials said:

■ Every other train operating westbound (or outbound) to Forest Park would make its last stop at Oak Park before turning to begin eastbound (or inbound) service.

■ Some westbound (or outbound) trains would only operate to the UIC-Halsted station before turning to begin eastbound (inbound) service.

■ Operators would make announcements alerting customers if a particular train is not operating to the end of the rail line.

In addition, the CTA said it will continue to offer a shuttle bus from the Harlem station to the Oak Park station. The pick-up point is the bus stop at the corner of Harlem/Harrison (Garfield).

Outbound Blue Line trains were running from Oak Park — bypassing Harlem — to the end of the line at Forest Park, but were only traveling on a single track as they passed the Harlem stop and accident scene, CTA officials said.

Before the Tuesday evening changes, Tuesday morning Blue Line trains were operating 10 to 12 minutes apart, instead of the normal 6 to 7 minutes, officials said. Some were so packed they had to pull off with people left behind on the platform.

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