WATCHDOGS: Where the L am I? CTA left riders stranded in rail yards

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CTA riders who nod off on the L sometimes wake to find themselves stranded on an empty train in a rail yard like this one south of the 95th Street Red Line’s end of the line, unnoticed by CTA employees as trains are taken out of service. | Kevin Tanaka / Sun Times

CTA riders should think twice before nodding off on the L.

Otherwise, they might wake to find themselves stranded on an empty train in a rail yard.

Since 2012, that’s happened to 17 passengers who were missed by CTA employees clearing trains taken out of service after their runs and sent to yards for maintenance, storage or staging, CTA records show.

Some riders appeared to be homeless. Others were heading home exhausted after work.

Some used phones to call for help. Others extracted themselves and walked alongside tracks — some pulsing with 600 volts of electricity — to find a way out.

CTA officials say they know of no injuries or lawsuits resulting from the incidents, which they say are rare, given their millions of riders a year.

But the CTA doesn’t really know because employees sometimes hide such occurrences so they don’t get in trouble, the state’s executive inspector general’s office — which investigates misconduct at Chicago-area transit agencies — has found.

During an unrelated investigation, the watchdog agency stumbled across a practice of CTA workers hiding incidents in which passengers had been left on L trains at the CTA’s 95th Street rail yard at the south end of the Red Line, according to a report last year.

“Based on interviews” with CTA employees, the inspector general’s office determined that once a passenger was discovered stranded on a train at the 95th Street yard, workers would sometimes speak in code over their radios to get the rider rescued — and keep supervisors from knowing what happened.

Workers would refer to a passenger as a “ ‘package’ . . . so as to conceal the discovery of a passenger in the rail yard from upper management,” according to the report.

An unidentified CTA supervisor told investigators that “all switchmen” — who operate trains between L stations and rail yards and are supposed to first make sure they’re empty — “use the ‘package’ procedure, and new switchmen learn this procedure from veteran switchmen.”

Another employee said the same ploy “was also used on the Brown, Orange and Green Lines because he previously worked on those lines and heard the term used in the same manner.”

L trains in the CTA rail yard south of the 95th Street end of the line on the Red Line. | Kevin Tanaka / Sun Times

L trains in the CTA rail yard south of the 95th Street end of the line on the Red Line. | Kevin Tanaka / Sun Times

The CTA maintains a dozen rail yards — from the North Shore to the west suburbs to the Far South Side. Among the yards with the most reported instances of passengers left on trains are 95th Street and in Rosemont and Des Plaines, according to CTA records: three apiece since 2012.

It’s unclear how long they were stuck, though one CTA document says a “passenger was on the train in Kimball Yard for approximately 25 minutes.”

The inspector general couldn’t say how many incidents there were but said, “There can be no dispute that there was a problem of CTA employees underreporting the incidence of passengers riding CTA trains into rail yards so as to avoid being disciplined.”

The state Executive Ethics Commission ordered the inspector general’s report to be made public. The CTA wasn’t happy, writing the commission that “beneath” the inspector general’s “incendiary language and accusations of wide-reaching misconduct lies no actual evidence of unaddressed wrongdoing.”

CTA spokesman Steve Mayberry says the “CTA took no action to ‘stop’ the report from being released and instead responded to the report as unfounded.”

But the CTA also told the commission it “updated certain procedures implicated by the allegations in order to bolster their clarity and their degree of specificity.”

According to Mayberry, employees were disciplined, though he wouldn’t say what that amounted to, saying only, “CTA utilizes progressive discipline, so the nature and duration of the discipline varies.”

Normally when a straggler is discovered, the CTA reactivates the train and drives the rider back to a platform. If a rider is wandering through a rail yard, electricity to the tracks is shut off and nearby trains halted.

Retired L motorman and former transit union official Robert Kelly says of riders left on trains, “It happens, but it’s not all the time.”

“Were there guys who hid it? Yes,” Kelly says. “Lied about it? Yes.”

He blames “the CTA’s discipline policy,” which he says is unfair.

It isn’t just the CTA that’s left riders stranded. Eighteen Metra passengers have ended up in “coach yards” on empty trains in recent years, records show — despite conductors’ warnings not to “delay” in exiting so they don’t end up in yards.

Usually, that’s after riders fell asleep and weren’t noticed by Metra crews, who are supposed to ensure that everybody’s off.

The punishment for conductors generally involves a stern letter, records show.

“No formal action will be taken, however further incidents of this nature could result in formal disciplinary action,” a Metra supervisor wrote to one employee who, rather than look for stragglers after his train pulled in to the LaSalle Street Station, walked up the aisle and “made noise and sang.”

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