By Jon Hilkevitch
A decades-old CTA safety system that can trigger a train's brakes in an emergency should be replaced by smart technology that detects potential danger much earlier, the National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday as part of its report into the Blue Line crash at the O'Hare station last year.
The smart technology system -- which would likely cost tens of millions of dollars -- was one of six safety recommendations the NTSB made to the Federal Transit Administration as a result of the O'Hare crash. Among others was the use on trains of recorder devices similar to the "black boxes" on commercial airplanes.
The report blamed the crash on a sleep-deprived train operator as well as the failure of the CTA to properly oversee her work schedule.
The rookie operator, Brittney Haywood, told investigators that she dozed off as the train approached the stopping area at the O'Hare International Airport station shortly before 3 a.m. on March 24, 2014. The train smashed through a bumping post at the end of the track at 23 mph and the first car was catapulted atop an escalator, injuring 33 of about 50 passengers on board and causing more than $11 million in damage, according to updated figures from the NTSB.
The call to install a "transmission-based train control system" on all eight CTA rail lines was a key recommendation made by the safety board to the CTA at a hearing in Washington during which the official cause of the accident was laid out.
An array of advanced train-control systems of the sort the NTSB recommended for the CTA and transit agencies nationwide are available. The systems offer improved capabilities to pinpoint a train's location and gauge its speed, according to some transportation experts.
If a train operator makes a mistake or is incapacitated, such systems are designed to automatically slow or stop a train in a broader range of scenarios than older technology. The systems can prevent collisions with other trains, derailments from excessive speed and can keep trains from moving onto the wrong section of track.
The CTA's current cab signal system places much of the responsibility on the train operator to stop for a red signal and to proceed at varying speeds for green and yellow signals, the experts said. An onboard train control system emits an audible alarm if speed restrictions are violated, giving the operator less than 2 seconds to respond or the train begins to stop itself.
But even that can be too late. The existing CTA signal system, which communicates with trains through the rails on track circuits of varying lengths of 200 to 1,000 feet, has failed to prevent several derailments and relatively slow-speed train-to-train collisions since the early 2000s.
The Blue Line accident would have been averted if a transmission-based train-control system were in place, NTSB investigator Tim DePaepe told safety board members during the hearing in Washington.
"If the operator does not stop, it will stop for him," DePaepe said. "It is proactive instead of reactive."
Asked whether the CTA would comply with the NTSB's non-binding recommendation, CTA spokesman Brian Steele said, "It is too soon to know how this technology might be incorporated into CTA's existing track and signal system."
CTA officials declined to estimate the potential cost of such a system. But similar technology considered by other transit agencies indicate it would at minimum run into the tens of millions of dollars, even if deployed on only the busiest one or two of the CTA's eight rail lines.
Steele said the CTA's current signal system "has been ensuring safe rail operations for decades." The system is backed up by track-level switch trips that can manually stop a train. He said millions of trains have pulled into the O'Hare station since it opened in 1984 and that last year's accident was unprecedented.
Metra is working to install a collision-avoidance system, called Positive Train Control, that is similar in some respects to transmission-based train control. Metra's system is estimated to cost $300 million to $400 million. But Metra and other commuter as well as freight railroads have said a Dec. 31 deadline set by Congress to activate the new system is not feasible.
Martin Schroeder, chief technology officer at the American Public Transportation Association, said different options are available "to achieve the same level of safety." The association is the trade group that represents the transit industry in the U.S.
The four members of the NTSB who participated in Tuesday's hearing said it was Haywood's responsibility to report to work adequately rested, even though she was juggling different starting times during both day and night. But they also said the CTA should have properly managed her schedule to reduce the risk of fatigue and protect the riding public.
The NTSB made six recommendations to the Federal Transit Administration, which was recently assigned responsibility by Congress to oversee safety at mass-transit agencies. Unlike commuter railroads including Metra, which are regulated by the Federal Railroad Administration, the CTA and other mass-transit agencies generally receive the attention of federal safety officials only after accidents.
The safety board said the FTA should mandate that transit agencies implement train-control systems that prevent collisions; require event recorders on trains like the "black boxes" on airliners; and establish limits on hours of service for transit employees so that work and rest schedules are predictable. The Federal Railroad Administration since 2008 has required railroads to submit plans that include fatigue management to lower risk.
The FTA currently funds a course available through the National Transit Institute on implementing a fatigue-management program for both individual operators and supervisors. The FTA also has developed an online training course designed to raise awareness of the fatigue and sleep apnea issues among transit employees, an FTA spokesman said.
The NTSB concluded that a combination of factors led to the O'Hare accident. The findings focused heavily on Haywood's failure to report to work fit for duty.
Haywood, a one-year employee who completed training two months before the accident, told investigators she was playing a sports game before reporting to work on the night of March 23 and that she got less than one hour of sleep, said Stephen Jenner, a human performance investigator for the NTSB.
CTA officials said Haywood was off work for 18 hours before the shift during which the wreck occurred.
The CTA fired Haywood, 25, after she failed to appear at a disciplinary hearing.
In an interview with the NTSB, Haywood admitted that she also had dozed off at the controls of her train in February 2014 and missed the station at the Blue Line stop at Belmont.
"She did not come clean (about falling asleep during the previous incident) until we interviewed her," investigator Ted Turpin told the board members.
The safety board criticized the CTA's poor oversight of Haywood's work schedule. Her schedule leading up to the crash included different starting times amid 12 straight days of driving trains, investigators learned.
The CTA maintained that Haywood had ample opportunity to rest, although the agency quickly tightened work and rest rules after the crash. The CTA increased the minimum rest time between shifts to 10 hours from eight hours. And new employees are no longer allowed to work overtime.
Also after the accident, the CTA implemented a series of operational changes at the O'Hare station, including lowering the speed limit for trains approaching the platform.
On Tuesday, the NTSB said the CTA's failure over the years to establish sufficient speed limits in the O'Hare station tunnel, coupled with emergency stopping distances that were too short for the automated system to stop a runaway train before it crashed, were contributing factors in the accident.
In addition, the safety board said the crash might have been prevented if a sensor that triggers the train's automatic braking system were properly positioned farther away from the end of the track. The CTA repositioned the sensor, or tripping device, as a result of the crash.
"The layers of protection designed to prevent such an accident failed," safety board Chairman Christopher Hart concluded.
Hart said there is "simply no place in American mass transit for an operator falling asleep at the controls of a train." He said operators "should also be backstopped by rail transit systems that intelligently avoid collisions, both in Chicago and elsewhere."
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