How Long Have Riders Been in Danger on the CTA Orange Line?

(Image: Could this scene from the infamous 1977 Loop ‘L’ crash happen on the Orange Line? According to a recent CTA press release, you betcha’.)

Last Tuesday (April 20th), the CTA announced it was putting the entire Orange Line from Roosevelt to Midway stations under a 35-mph slow zone. Why? A newly found fault in the signaling system has the potential to allow trains to crash into each other if left unfixed.

In its release, CTA noted that the fault could stop train operators from receiving notification via an onboard warning system that another train was ahead. However, CTA didn’t specify whether the fault was with signal equipment along the right-of-way or with on-board systems. According to the release, transit-agency engineers are working on a fix for the unspecified problem, and until it’s in place, trains are operating at reduced speeds.

To its credit, the CTA Tattler blog wrote about the problem the next day (as did Chicagoist.) The Tattler quoted CTA president Richard Rodriguez saying:

“Since the conditions needed for the failure have not been in place, there has been no danger to customers.”

Fair enough. Of course, that statement also means that before the CTA discovered the problem–which presumably has lain dormant since the Orange Line’s 1993 inauguration–CTA customers were at risk when riding the Orange Line, perhaps for the past 17 years.

That may not be the case, but without the CTA specifying the exact nature of the problem, the length it has existed, and the detailed steps those CTA engineers are taking to ameliorate it, pardon me if I detect a healthy dose of “Oh crap! What do we do now?” agency spin here.

That’s my read on the curiously cheery press release about a potentially deadly signal issue. I’d love to link to coverage of the same issue  from the Chicago Tribune or the Chicago Sun-Times. However…there isn’t any. That could be because the CTA and Rodriguez did a great job of framing the story as a non-starter. Or perhaps it’s because, given their still-shrinking staffs, the Windy City’s two major dailies are choosing to report only transit news that the CTA, itself, deems newsworthy. (Hopefully not–there’s a line between journalism and serving as a spokesperson, and that would sure cross it.)

I’m certain the CTA would like you to believe this story is not newsworthy. But I really don’t know how our major dailies are coming to that conclusion. Perhaps they simply missed the story. I found it by perusing the CTA’s press release site for items of interest. I would hope Tribune and Sun-Times reporters regularly do the same.

Then I thought about the potential import of what I read. Again, I’d hope our city’s major dailies would do likewise. Here’s how that information-parsing went for me:

  1. Rapid transit signal systems keep trains from crashing.
  2. The Orange Line’s signal system doesn’t work as intended, meaning Orange Line trains can unexpectedly crash.
  3. The Orange Line’s signal system and railcars have been in place since 1993, so have riders have been in danger that long?
  4. The CTA has a long history of derailments and other incidents due to faulty equipment and human error anyway (for example, on the Blue Line in 2006 and 2009, and the Green Line in 2008 and 2009.) So this sounds like a ticking time bomb.
  5. Hey, waiter! Story!

Added to all of that, upon reading the release I also thought about the numerous major, sometimes deadly rail-transit incidents that have occurred across the country in the past couple of years due to signal problems and operator error, including these in Boston,San Francisco, and Washington DC. And, of course, I thought about the infamous 1977 ‘L’ wreck that occurred at the Wabash and Lake corner of the CTA Loop. The accident, which killed 11 riders and injured 180, was caused when one train–you guessed it–rear-ended another and went hurtling to the street below.

Again, oh overlords of Chicago media: story! Story! I’ve even thought up some questions you could ask CTA Pres. Rodriguez to get the ball rolling (you too, CTA Tattler):

  • Have CTA Orange Line riders really been at risk of dying in a fatal collision since the first weeks of the Clinton administration?
  • How did another long-term CTA equipment defect go undiscovered when sweeping reforms were put in place to detect just such defects after the 2006 Clark/Lake Blue Line derailment?
  • How long has the CTA known about the issue?
  • And what, exactly and in detail, is the problem? And the fix for it?

Trust me, readers will love this stuff. Actual investigative content about an issue that affects thousands of rank-and-file Chicagoans. Why, I might even buy a printed paper, myself, just to read it. But in this town, I don’t count my transit reporting before it’s hacked hatched, either.

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