CHICAGO – Chicago's transit agency shares in the blame for an accident last year in which a driver fell asleep and crashed a commuter train into a platform and up an escalator at O'Hare airport, federal investigators concluded Tuesday. And they warned that, without changes, a similar accident could happen elsewhere.
The National Transportation Safety Board announced its findings at a meeting in Washington, D.C., and made nationwide safety recommendations, including that all U.S. transit agencies consider the effects of operator fatigue when preparing employee work schedules. The board also pressed for transit agencies to install more advanced control systems that automatically apply a train's brakes and prevent collisions if a driver fails to act.
The Chicago derailment happened just before 3 a.m. on March 24, 2014, when the exhausted driver was on her 12th straight day of working primarily night shifts. The accident injured more than 30 passengers and caused $9 million in damage to the transit station at one of the country's busiest airports. No one was on the usually busy escalator at the time.
The train operator acknowledged dozing off and was fired. But the investigation also found that the Chicago Transit Authority had the driver working a schedule that contributed to her exhaustion. The agency also failed to spot hazards in the station's design that meant track-side emergency braking systems and the platform bumper could not stop the train at the speeds permitted in the station.
Those conclusions should raise alarms around the country, NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart said, noting overnight schedules have become the norm in today's 24-7 culture, even in safety-critical jobs.
"To its credit, CTA has revised its work-rest policy since the accident, but ... this begs the question of what is happening elsewhere in the country," he said.
The Chicago agency has increased drivers' off-duty time from eight hours to 10 hours between shifts and barred first-year operators from working overtime. They've also increased employee training on fatigue management and lowered the speed limit for trains entering O'Hare station.
"The changes created some of the most stringent guidelines among U.S. transit agencies, and demonstrated the CTA's ongoing commitment to safety," the agency said in a statement Tuesday.
Investigators said the train operator failed to use her hours off to get proper rest, but acknowledged that sleeping during the day would have been hard because she was still adjusting to working night shifts.
The NTSB previously has recommended hours-of-service rules based around the science on fatigue for all major modes of transportation except transit. The Chicago accident revealed the gap and Tuesday's recommendations were aimed at resolving the problem.
The suggested changes also include a proposal for all new or rehabbed transit trains to be equipped with data recorders.
But perhaps the most sweeping recommendation was for all transit agencies to install automatic transmission-based braking systems as a safety net for human error. That's similar to the GPS-based emergency braking technology known as Positive Train Control that the heavy rail industry is under pressure to install.
It would be a significant expense for many cash-strapped transit agencies.
It will be up to the Federal Transit Administration to decide whether to require the proposed changes.