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Off The Rails: A Recent History Of CTA Screw-Ups

According to online records of the National Transportation Safety Board, last week's Blue Line derailment is the fifth Chicago Transit Authority accident since 2001 to prompt an NTSB investigation. NTSB investigator Kitty Higgins, at a press conference last week, vaguely credited the CTA with making improvements following past investigations. But it's not clear that the CTA is taking the initiative. These reports suggest that while the CTA has followed some of the NTSB's recommendations, it didn't make full use of NTSB findings - or, say, basic logic and intuition - to fix pervasive safety problems, like drivers' negligence. It took three accidents and two urgings by the NTSB, for example, for the CTA to "implement systematic procedures" to monitor drivers' compliance with speed limits and signal rules. Here are summaries of the accidents, as taken directly from NTSB reports. under that, a roundup of recent small fires on the O'Hare branch of the Blue Line.

* * *

"Within a 2-month period in 2001, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) experiences two similar rear-end collisions involving CTA rapid transit trains. Both accidents were preceded by the train operators' having failed to comply with operating rules designed to prevent similar collisions. the investigation of the two accidents highlighted deficiencies in the CTA management's approach to ensuring rules compliance among its operators." Report (PDF, 1 meg)

1. A northbound Blue Line train rear-ends another on its way to O'Hare.

When: 5:40 a.m. on Sunday, June 17, 2001

Narrative: "[The operator] said that as she left the subway portal [from the Belmont Ave. stop on the O'Hare branch of the Blue Line] and exited a right-hand curve, she saw a train stopped about 100 feet in front of her. She stated that she moved the control handle to brake position 3 and then pulled the brake cord, but the train did not stop . . . when she did depress the track brake, it was too late to stop the train. She estimated her sight distance at 100 feet and the impact speed as 10 mph."

Injuries: 21 minor.

The Driver: "After accruing an excessive number of safety violations in May 2001, she was required to participate in a corrective case interview, the last step in the CTA's disciplinary process before discharge."

Conclusions: "Had the operator . . . stopped and contacted the control center when the cab signals on her train did not activate and had the control center then followed existing...procedures, the accident would be been prevented."

"The Chicago Transit Authority's management process for identifying and addressing operators who do not meet safety performance standards was not effective in addressing the repeated problems that the operator in the June 17 accident was experiencing."

2. A Brown Line train rear ends a Purple Line train south of the Sedgwick stop.

When: 8:15 a.m. on Friday, August 31, 2001

Narrative: "[The driver] said he experienced two "blue light" alarms [which mean that another train train is close ahead] . . . The operator said he experienced several R6.4 stops [automatic or manual stops when another train is close ahead] . . . once he entered the combined Brown/Purple Line tracks at Clark Junction, he proceeded after R6.4 stops without waiting for the train ahead to clear and without contact the operations control center [as CTA rules require]. He stated that it was common practice for operators to proceed on an R6.4 without waiting or calling."

"[The operator] stated that he left Armitage Station . . . knowing that he was following a Purple Line train close ahead . . . after leaving Sedgwick and passing Division, he entered the Church Curve, where visibility is limited by [a] church building . . . At the south end of the curve, he said that he observed the taillights of a train stopped about 100 feet ahead . . . he moved the control handle [to brake] . . . but the train did not stop . . . Several witnesses on the train stated that they did not feel the brakes engage before impact. [The report goes on to say the other train was stopped north of the Chicago station, following the rules waiting for yet another train ahead to move.]"

Injuries: One serious; 117 minor.

The Driver: " . . . was referred for remedial training after passing a stop signal on October 23, 1998, in violation of CTA operating rules . . . After the June 17 . . . collision . . . "

Conclusions: "Had the operator . . . complied with the Chicago Transit Authority's operating rules and waited for his stop signal to clear before proceeding, the accident would have been prevented."

Irony 1: "The CTA, in response to an issue identified by the Safety Board's investigation [of the June crash], began delivering a mandatory 4-hour refresher course on cab signal rules, operation on sight, and emergency braking . . . [the] operator [in the August crash] had not yet had the training; he had been scheduled to take it on the Monday following the accident."

In a later report, the board recommended the CTA "Develop and implement systematic procedures for performing and documenting frequent management checks to ensure all operating personnel are complying with Chicago Transit Authority operating rules, including speed restrictions and signal rules."

The NTSB would note after a 2004 accident that the CTA had still not responded to this recommendation.

Irony 2: In its report on the 2001 back-to-back rear-enders, the NTSB noted the disadvantages of not having "black box" event recorders on the trains. The train in last week's Blue Line accident did not have an event recorder, and it's not clear how many, if any, CTA trains do.


3. A Green Line train hits two workers on the Loop tracks. (Summary page)

When: 4:50 a.m. on Tuesday, February 26, 2002.

Narrative: "On the morning of the accident, two night-shift signal maintainers were repairing a switch at tower 18 . . . A trainee was operating the train, and a train operator/line instructor 2 was observing. Both crewmembers on the train later stated that they had not heard the control center's radioed advisory that workers were on the track structure . . . Both maintainers later stated that they had not seen or heard the train as it approached. After being struck, one of the maintainers fell from the structure. The other fell to the deck of a platform on the outside of the structure."

Injuries: Both maintenance workers were seriously injured. One was treated and released at a local hospital; the other had to stay for further treatment.

The Driver: A trainee, apparently not at fault.

Conclusions: "The probable cause of the accident was the failure of the signal maintainers to watch for approaching trains and their failure to obey the Chicago Transit Authority's requirement that they increase their visibility by displaying a flashing yellow warning light. Contributing to the maintainers' reduced awareness of oncoming trains was the absence of clear requirements regarding the designation of safety lookouts and the use of interlocking signals to protect work areas."

"The CTA did not have any written rules providing for interlocking signals to be used to protect workers on the wayside . . . the CTA did not have any written procedures requiring that a safety lookout be designated."

Results: "The CTA told National Transportation Safety Board investigators that it has implemented new procedures that require the conducting of pre-entry safety discussions among crewmembers before they foul the right-of-way and the designating of a safety lookout. The CTA has also begun an ongoing program of management right-of-way field safety rules compliance audits and is in the process of evaluating the use of interlocking equipment to establish areas of worker protection. While the evaluation is underway, the CTA is requiring crews to make face-to-face contact with the tower operator before commencing work in an interlocking."

4. A northbound Purple Line train rear-ends a Brown Line train just north of Merchandise Mart. (Summary page)

When: 5:46 p.m. on February 3, 2004

Narrative: "The motorman of [the Purple Line train] told investigators that as he operated the train northward, he diverted his attention to the street below and was distracted by what he believed was going to be a vehicle accident. The motorman stated that when he looked away from the street and toward his direction of travel, his train was about 10 feet from the rear of the stopped train. He said he immediately applied the emergency brakes, but it was too late to stop his train, and the train collided with the rear car of the stopped train . . . The rear marker lights of the stopped train were illuminated and that the rear car had about 138 feet of preview."

Additional Hazard: "The fiberglass walkway grating between the accident trains and the MART platform was covered in ice and jeopardized the safe evacuation of the passengers."

Injuries: 42 minor.

The Driver: Had already worked an overnight shift and overtime as a switchman, then, after a 3 1/2 hour nap, volunteered to work the driving shift.

Conclusions: "The the probable cause of the accident was the failure of the operator of [the Purple Line train] to comply with operating rules. Contributing to the accident was inadequate operational safety oversight by Chicago Transit Authority."

Results: "[In an earlier investigation in Maryland,] the Safety Board . . . asked rail transit systems to "ensure that your fatigue educational awareness program includes the risks posed by sleeping disorders, the indicators and symptoms of such disorders, and the available means of detecting and treating them." The CTA senior manager, System Safety and Environmental Affairs, told investigators that the CTA is addressing [the recommendation] and is also evaluating other conditions that may cause fatigue."


Recent small fires on the CTA Blue Line, O'Hare Branch.

1. Sunday, June 13, 2004: A fire breaks out on the third rail between the Logan Square and Belmont Blue Line stations; seven people injured, according to the Sun-Times (third item).

2. August 8, 2003: A small fire, attributed to sparks from the third rail, breaks out in a Blue Line tunnel between Division Street and Chicago Avenue; about 30 minor injuries reported; ABC 7 reports that "a CTA official says the operator should not have evacuated the passengers into the dark subway for the small fire."

3. June 13, 1997: Yet another Blue Line fire in the Milwaukee Avenue tunnel; again, blamed on electrical problems in the third rail; five are treated for smoke inhalation.


Posted on July 16, 2006

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