The “strange” schedule and long overtime hours of a CTA driver whose train barrelled into an escalator at O’Hare International Airport contributed to her fatigue at the time of the crash, the head of the CTA’s rail union said Friday.
Robert Kelly, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 308, ripped into the erratic starting times and long hours worked by the CTA’s fill-in, “extra-board” employees, saying it’s time to reform them.
“The extra board is a factor” in the crash at 2:50 a.m. Monday that sent 32 passengers to local hospitals, Kelly said at a news conference. “We have problems with it.’’
A consistent 8-hour shift is a rarity for many men and women who carry millions of Chicagoans to work every year on CTA trains, Kelly said. More operators, more normal shifts, and a possible cap on overtime — which currently has no limit — are needed, he said.
“Local 308’s biggest concern is the safety of our members and the riding public and this has got to stop. We have to find a way from preventing this from happening again,’’ Kelly said.
The driver is a 25-year-old Chicago woman named Brittney Haywood, the Sun-Times has learned. A woman answered the phone at the family bungalow Friday evening by saying “no comment” and then hanging up before a reporter could even ask a question.
When a reporter later knocked at the door to the home, a woman yelled “no comment” out the window.
The driver told federal investigators this week she dozed off at the controls just before the Blue Line train vaulted out of the track bed, barrelled over the platform and crashed into an escalator leading into one of the world’s busiest airports at 2:50 a.m. Monday.
She is “torn to pieces’’ over the accident, Kelly said, and the union will fight any attempt to terminate her.
“She’s distraught over this. She is not happy with this. We don’t go out and say `Today we’re gonna take a train and ride it up a platform,’” Kelly said
The woman became qualified to operate a CTA train in January and admitted to investigators that she had dozed off and overshot a station just one month later, in February.
Two dozing incidents in two months “sounds bad. It sounds horrible in the public’s eyes,’’ Kelly said. “Each individual is different, and it all depends on what’s going on. Come on. We’ve all dozed off driving a train [or a car]. There’s a difference between dozing and falling asleep, in my opinion.’’
The operator had worked 69 hours in the eight days that ended with the accident shift, Kelly said. The CTA, apparently subtracting for lunch, put the number at 55.7 hours over seven days — still well over a 40-hour work week.
“I’m not trying to absolve her of responsibility,’’ Kelly said. “But did the 69 hours play a role? I’m sure it did.’’
Her CTA schedule showed that over the seven days before the crash, she had only one full day off. From Sunday night, Mar. 16, to the next night, she worked three shifts — two of more than 9 hours each and a volunteer shift of five hours. The longest time off between those three shifts was just under 9 hours.
“Extra board” employees fill in for vacationing or ill workers, or sometimes just prefer the fill-in work, Kelly said. They call in after 4:30 p.m. every day to get their assignments, and often wind up working overtime.
Sometimes they get stuck with “split” shifts in which a normal shift is interrupted in the middle with several hours of down time. They can bounce erratically between day and night shifts, he said.
Haywood’s schedule indicated that over eight days she had starting times of roughly 9:30 p.m., 7:30 a.m., 9:20 p.m., then 8:10 p.m.; after a day off, she had starting times of 7:30 a.m., 8:40 p.m., 6:40 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. — that last time being the start of the shift that ended in the crash at 2:50 a.m. Monday.
In a statement, CTA officials noted that the operator was off for 18 hours prior to the shift that ended in the crash. Those officials also noted that the driver had worked two nearly back-to-back shifts that week, adding up to about 14 hours, because she volunteered to do so.
The “CTA’s process for scheduling is similar to that of every other transit agency in the country,’’ the CTA said in a statement.
The woman had a commute of 60 to 90 minutes just to get home from work, Kelly said.
“That’s the problem with working these strange hours. You get off at 6:45 a.m. in the morning and you have to be back by 5 p.m. It’s not an easy thing to just go home and fall asleep,’’ Kelly said.
The accident caused an estimated $6 million in damages at the Blue Line’s O’Hare station and was captured on a surveillance video that somehow landed on YouTube. It showed the train jumping out of the track bed and barrelling up the stairs and escalator at O’Hare.
“I’ve watched that film 100 times and I get horrified every time I see it,’’ Kelly said. If the accident had happened at a busier hour, “this could have been a truly tragic time for [the operator] and anyone coming down that escalator.’’
CTA officials said they hope to restore service to normal sometime Sunday. Until then, free shuttles continue to run between the O’Hare and Rosemont stations.
Contributing: Art Golab, Becky Schlikerman