Rail deaths spur CTA safety bid

The vast majority involved trespassers intentionally going onto the tracks, whether it is commuters trying to retrieve lost items, graffiti taggers or criminals making escapes by walking on tracks between stations, authorities said.

Such incidents occur across the rail system, and the analysis turned up no stations that were hot spots or any increase at certain times of the year, De La Cruz said. A common characteristic is that most trespassers are male.

The recent average of nine deaths a year represents a fraction of the more than 220 million passenger trips taken in a year on the CTA's eight lines.

"The numbers are low enough that we could not see any clear trends to help us understand why there is an occasional uptick," De La Cruz said. "So we are focused on deterring people from making a bad judgment about something they think is easy, quick and innocent, and it's not."

Coming off 11 fatalities last year, seven deaths on the tracks have occurred so far this year, according to CTA records.

Since 2008, 41 individuals were fatally struck by trains or died of other causes on the elevated, subway or at-grade right of way, records show. In addition, 11 people were electrocuted by the 600-volt third rail that sits alongside the tracks of the 224.1-mile CTA system.

Thirty-three of the 52 total deaths were either attributed by police to suicide or suspected suicides, authorities said.

The new safety campaign is not directed at the specific problem of suicides, transit officials said.

"Messaging related to suicide prevention is often handled in a much different way than the campaign we are doing here," Steele said. "We will address suicide prevention in a future program."

Twenty-one of the fatalities occurred on the Red Line; 20 on the Blue Line; four on the Brown Line; three on the Green Line; two on the Purple Line; and one each on the Orange Line and the Pink Line, records show.

A recent nonfatal incident occurred Aug. 30 when a rider waiting for a train at the Western station on the Blue Line's Forest Park branch dropped his CTA pass onto the tracks, then went down to retrieve it, officials said.

A train operator saw the man on the right of way and called the CTA control center to have power cut off. The trespasser jumped back up to the platform and fled the station before authorities could reach him, officials said.

Justin LaValle, whose brother, Jeff, 26, died of electrocution on June 30 after he fell onto the tracks and accidentally touched the third rail at the Howard Red Line station, said he was unaware of the existence of a third rail until his sibling's death.

The victim's family, which lives in Glenview, subsequently started an online petition asking the CTA to put up protection along the third rail. But transit officials said the third rail sits more than 8 feet from the edge of the platform and it must be exposed to make contact with trains.

"The CTA has had the same rail configuration for over a century and currently there are no plans to make changes,'' Steele said. "Adding any cover or protection would require hundreds of millions of dollars in changes to the third rail and to the entire rail car fleet."

Unlike Metra and the freight railroads, the CTA does not work with a statewide rail safety campaign called Illinois Operation Lifesaver. The campaign focuses on educating the public by making presentations at schools and to community organizations.

"Operation Lifesaver does have a rail safety program more geared toward the CTA, but they haven't embraced it,'' said Chip Pew, state coordinator with Operation Lifesaver and a railroad safety specialist at the Illinois Commerce Commission. "I think it's great the CTA is now going to embrace safety on a more visible front."

Pew said conducting educational safety outreach at, say, the CTA Red Line Addison station near Wrigley Field "would be an ideal place to get out the message that if you are not in the path of a CTA train, nothing bad happens."

Data show that individuals engaging in risky behavior by entering rail right of ways are mostly men ages 20 to 50, Pew said.

"The largest segment is not kids, which I think is contradictory to what the public would view,'' Pew said. "It's the parents of the kids who are setting a bad example by showing their children that trespassing on the tracks is not a big deal."

Contact Getting Around at jhilkevitch@tribune.com or c/o the Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611; on Twitter @jhilkevitch; and at facebook.com/jhilkevitch. Read recent columns at chicagotribune.com/gettingaround.

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