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Rail deaths spur CTA safety bid

Program is geared to keeping riders off tracks, reducing rail fatalities

Jon Hilkevitch

Getting Around

September 16, 2013

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Almost every day somebody climbs or falls onto the CTA tracks, which has led to seven deaths so far in 2013 and more than 50 fatalities in recent years, according to an analysis the transit agency is set to release Monday as part of a redoubled rail-safety campaign.

The deaths stem from both bad decisions and simple mistakes, such as going after a dropped electronic device, standing too close to platform edges, intoxication and horsing around in the shadow of powerful trains and the electrified third rail, the analysis found.

Warnings posted throughout the CTA system to keep away from the tracks may seem awfully obvious, but the message isn't getting through to some CTA riders, according to transit officials, who on Monday will launch the campaign aboard CTA trains and at rail stations.

In fact, the safety effort comes as the number of reported right-of-way incidents has increased each year since 2010, CTA records show.

Most of the people killed on the rail right of way during roughly the past 51/2 years died from being hit by trains or from falls, while about 20 percent were electrocuted when they came in contact with the 600-volt third rail, a breakdown of incidents revealed.

In addition to the personal tragedies that can result, trespassing often inconveniences thousands of commuters because each time an incident is reported, the CTA control center orders the electricity temporarily shut off while transit authority investigators and the Chicago Fire Department do their work, officials said.

The problem of intentional and accidental trespassers on the CTA right of way is as old as rail transit in Chicago, which dates to the late 1800s. The difference is that 115 years ago no commuter was leaping onto the tracks to retrieve a mobile phone.

Last year, 349 incidents involving individuals on the right of way were reported, which represents a 4 percent increase from 2011. Some 205 incidents have been reported this year through July 31, officials said.

There have certainly been more, but these are the incidents CTA officials know about, because they were recorded by video surveillance cameras mounted at all 145 CTA rail stations.

One of the more frightening recent incidents caught on camera occurred at the Damen Blue Line station around 1:30 a.m. on July 23. A photo provided to the Tribune by the CTA shows a train approaching as a man runs across both sets of tracks, from one platform to the other. All eyes from the crowd at the edge of the platform were on the man to see whether he would make it. He did and moments later boarded the train before authorities could catch up to him, CTA spokesman Brian Steele said.

Trespassing on the right of way is a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to 364 days in prison and a possible court-sanctioned fine. But very few arrests are made each year because most violators leave the tracks shortly after they enter, CTA officials said.

The new safety blitz is dubbed "Stay off the tracks. It's not worth your life." It includes safety posters designed to grab attention, depicting people dangerously close to moving trains.

"People ride our trains day in and day out, and things become routine. We hope this campaign will make people pause for a second to think about safety again, to remember there is a third rail and it is dangerous," said Araceli De La Cruz, CTA's chief safety and security officer.

"There are certain behaviors that, at first, may seem innocent or quick and easy but can turn fatal," De La Cruz said.

Even people who think they have a healthy respect for trains and possess good survival instincts still too often tempt danger, officials said. Every day, transit officials say, they see waiting passengers standing on the platform's blue tactile edging and leaning toward the tracks while looking to see whether a train is approaching. An accidental brush from a passing bystander on a crowded platform or simply losing one's balance could have tragic consequences.

To discourage such behavior, one of the new safety posters shows a man leaning off the platform. The printed warning says, "Don't worry, it's coming."

Another poster shows a mobile phone on the tracks with a train pulling into the station as, inches away, a man is already jumping onto the tracks. The caption says: "You can live without it for a few minutes. If you drop your phone on the tracks, don't jump down to get it. Inform a CTA employee, who will help you."

The CTA's advice to anybody who ends up on the tracks is to seek help from someone on the platform, particularly a CTA employee.

"If you are able to move, go toward the platform. But avoid touching any rail whatsoever," De La Cruz said.

Most of the 52 deaths that the CTA has tracked since 2008 occurred on the Red and Blue Lines, the transit agency's busiest rail routes.

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.