www.redeyechicago.com/news/cta/ct-met-getting-around-1001-20121001,0,1292225.column

redeyechicago.com

CTA inspection reports show needed repairs in subways

Defects include broken handrails, burned-out lights, faulty emergency phones and obstructed escape routes

Jon Hilkevitch

Getting Around

October 1, 2012

Advertisement

Burned-out lights, broken handrails and cracks in emergency-escape catwalks that pose a tripping hazard are among more than 260 defects CTA safety inspectors have found in the subways of the Red and Blue lines.

In the latest safety review of the State Street and Dearborn Street train tunnels, the defects, violations of basic standards as well as dozens of additional problems specifically involving the condition of emergency exits to the streets were written up in inspection documents the Tribune obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

Deficiencies ranged from nonfunctioning blue lights that mark locations of emergency phones in the tunnels; faulty emergency phones that are supposed to connect to the CTA Control Center; ladders and debris blocking escape routes out of the subway; and many more "housekeeping" violations like hanging electrical conduit, standing water and boxes and papers stacked on top of flammable storage cabinets.

Thirty blue lights and two emergency phones in the Blue Line tunnel and 15 blue lights and 12 phones in the Red Line tunnel were reported out by inspectors. There are 74 emergency phones in the Blue Line subway and 91 in the Red Line subway, according to the CTA.

CTA officials responded to Tribune questions about the inspection reports by saying the subway tunnels, where trains carry hundreds of thousands of riders each day, are significantly safer today in the wake of improvements stemming from major train derailments in 2006 and 2008.

"The reports demonstrate the robust inspection program we have in place now since the major incidents," said Araceli De La Cruz, CTA chief safety and security officer.

The National Transportation Safety Board cited the CTA's "ineffective management and oversight" of its track inspection, maintenance and safety programs as the cause of a July 11, 2006, derailment in the Blue Line subway between the Clark/Lake and Grand/Milwaukee stations.

About 1,000 passengers, many with black soot rings around their mouths, fled the eight-car train amid dense smoke that was caused by electrical arcing. More than 150 of the riders were treated for smoke inhalation and injuries. The NTSB investigation turned up problems with tunnel ventilation and smoke removal, and cited difficulties that emergency personnel encountered finding the train.

"What we are doing now, which is more than CTA did in the past, has decreased opportunities for accidents to happen," De La Cruz said.

Unlike Metra, which must comply with safety regulations established by the Federal Railroad Administration, the CTA largely polices itself. The Regional Transportation Authority conducts safety audits of the CTA rail system, but CTA officials have complained that the RTA doesn't have the expertise to understand its complex operation.

The situation may soon change. Under new federal transportation legislation that Congress passed this year, the Federal Transit Administration is responsible for establishing and enforcing minimum federal safety standards for commuter rail, heavy rail, light rail and transit buses. The standards apply to the CTA, Metra and Pace, and will replace a patchwork of state laws. The changes were recommended for years by the NTSB, following the CTA Blue Line subway derailment six years ago and an accident on the Miami airport rail system in 2008.

Twenty-two of the defects and violations found during the latest comprehensive CTA inspections of the Blue Line, conducted in April, had also been documented in the previous inspections in 2011, the records indicate. The next subway inspection is scheduled for November, officials said.

Some of the repeat violations, like burned-out lights, may have been corrected before happening again, said Michael Stubbe, CTA general manager of system safety.

In addition to the twice-a-year subway inspections, CTA inspectors conduct less rigorous weekly or biweekly inspections of the tracks, depending on the age of specific sections of track, said Colleen Zinck, CTA transit engineer who heads inspection maintenance on the Blue and Pink lines.

"The subway is a unique environment, and we are looking at track gauge and for rail and plate wear, missing parts and cracks in the concrete ties," Zinck said.

But there are also hazards riders cause every day that require immediate attention, officials said. Zinck mentioned a recent incident involving a train dragging an umbrella. Sparks flew as the umbrella's metal tines hit the 600-volt third rail, she said.

"A lot of people treat the subway as their garbage can," Zinck said Thursday, as she watched a track inspector at the Blue Line Chicago Avenue station remove a piece of clothing wrapped around a rail.

CTA officials said the agency's goal is to clear up problems as they are discovered. But the number of defects and violations in the inspection reports represents a fraction of the total infrastructure in the subways, they said.

There are about 6 miles of footing and handrails in each of the two subways and a total of more than 13,000 lights in the two tunnels, CTA spokeswoman Tammy Chase said.

While an inspection item listing a loose or broken handrail may represent a section just 8 feet long, other entries require quick attention, officials said. One example is "exit lights very faded, cannot be read," which was listed several times on an emergency-exit inspection sheet for the O'Hare branch of the Blue Line dated June 5, 2012.

But it's sometimes difficult for CTA officials to determine from emergency-exit inspection sheets, which are handwritten (the entries on subway inspection forms are typed), whether problems identified have been resolved. In fact, when a Tribune reporter attempted to go over several entries on an emergency-exit inspection sheet with CTA officials, the officials couldn't make out some of the handwritten comments.

But overall, CTA subways are safe and in good working order, said Christopher Bushell, CTA chief infrastructure officer.

"This past decade, the CTA has made a consistent investment in the subways, replacing infrastructure that in many cases was designed and installed in the early 1940s," Bushell said. He cited new signal systems, lighting around emergency exits, and repairs of catwalks that have been made since 2000.

"We now have systems that aren't at the end of their service life," he said.

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.