Focus in CTA crash falls on operator fatigue, braking system

Christopher Bushell (R), CTA Chief Infrastructure Officer, updates the media as Brian Steele, CTA spokesman, looks on. (Jose M. Osorio/ Chicago Tribune)

Federal investigators will focus on whether a CTA train operator fell asleep at the controls and if an automatic braking system was working properly as they seek to pinpoint the cause of a spectacular crash Monday that left a Blue Line car perched atop an escalator.

 The operator may have fallen asleep shortly before her train smashed through a “bumping post” at the end of the track at O'Hare International Airport just before 3 a.m., according to a transit union representative.

 The CTA employee, whose name has not been released, said after the crash that she was tired, said Robert Kelly, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 308.

 “I can confirm that she was extremely tired,” Kelly said.

 “Indications are she might have dozed off.”

 Other crucial issues that will come under sharp focus in the inquiry include whether the train was speeding as it entered the station at the airport and whether the safety control system was working.

 The train was traveling with such momentum that it smashed through a barrier designed to stop trains at the end of the line, jumped the platform and climbed the escalator.

 More than 30 people were hurt, though none of the injuries was considered life-threatening, officials said. Had the incident occurred at any time other than the middle of the night, scores could have been killed or injured, experts said.

 Blue Line service to the airport will be halted until authorities finish studying the crash site and decide how to remove the wreckage. The CTA late Monday declined to say when the station might reopen.

 The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the incident, which temporarily halted commuter rail service to one of the country's busiest airports.

 The CTA is shuttling passengers to O'Hare from the nearby Rosemont stop for the time being.

 The front car of the eight-car train remained wedged atop the escalator late Monday.

 “The train is not going to go anywhere for the foreseeable future,” said Tim DePaepe, an NTSB railroad accident investigator. “We need to examine the train and the position it's in prior to its movement.”

 The NTSB will also try to determine how fast the train was going when the crash occurred.

 Officials said the train did not carry an event data recorder. Typically, the CTA's older-model 2600 Series cars, like the ones in Monday's crash, do not have event recorders.

 However, the train did have an outward-facing video system, DePaepe said, and officials are reviewing the recording and several others. They also are examining the signals and tracks to see if there were problems or malfunctions.

 The crash happened about 2:50 a.m., one of the station's lightest traffic times.

 “I heard a boom and when I got off the train, the train was all the way up the escalator. It's a wreck,” Denise Adams, who was riding toward the back of the train, told reporters.

 “It was a lot of panic because it was hard to get people off the train.”

 CTA President Forrest Claypool said safety is the agency's top priority.