Turns out that lead-foots in the Chicago area aren’t just on the Dan Ryan and Kennedy expressways. The CTA, Metra and the Union Pacific Railroad, which operates several routes for Metra, have recorded more than two dozen train-speeding incidents over the past five years.
Though none had serious results — unlike the 2005 derailment near 47th Street and the Dan Ryan in which a Metra Rock Island District train barreled through a track intersection at 69 miles an hour, killing two and injuring more than 100 — most of the incidents from 2013 through 2017 led to re-training or other discipline for crews.
During the five-year stretch analyzed by the Chicago Sun-Times, CTA records show the transit agency disciplined 18 train operators for speeding. All of those incidents involved L trains going too fast in work zones or while passing stations. Often, the incidents happened with workers on or near the right-of-way — which generally requires reducing speed to just six miles an hour.
CTA records aren’t always clear on how fast the trains were traveling. Spokesman Steve Mayberry describes the speeds that are reported as “visual estimates.”
In one incident last year, a northbound L train was traveling in a work zone just south of the North and Clybourn station “at an excessive speed of 15 miles per hour” on the Red Line while workers were near the tracks, according to CTA records. The train operator “leaned out of the motor cab window while passing and mouthed ‘sorry’ and then continued to increase in speed,” the records show.
While the transit agency investigated, that operator was put on “platform duties” and ultimately underwent “formal retraining.”
In 2015, a Blue Line train sped by workers who tried to get the operator to slow down, records show. But “the operator appeared distracted” and ended up with a written warning and retraining.
In 2014, three L operators were suspended — two for a day, one for three days — for speeding in work zones on the Brown Line and Green Line.
Outside of work zones, speeding beyond a mile or two an hour is next to impossible, CTA officials say, because “automatic train control” technology in each train’s cab quickly alerts operators to speeding — and, if they don’t slow down right away, the train automatically is brought to a halt.
But that technology isn’t programmed for work zones.
CTA officials say they don’t know how often L trains are brought to a stop by automatic train control.
Mayberry says speeding is relatively infrequent and “not the level of a problem.”
The CTA’s five-year tally of disciplinary action for speeding doesn’t include the harrowing incident in 2014 in which a Blue Line train piloted by a sleepy operator entered the end-of-the-line O’Hare Airport L stop, jumped a barrier and plowed onto an escalator, injuring dozens. That’s because the train was going about 23 miles an hour, and the speed limit was 25, so the automatic train control didn’t kick in. A track-level device triggered braking, but it was positioned too close to the end of the line to stop the train in time — a flaw the CTA has since fixed, in addition to reducing the speed limit there.
The highest allowable L speed anywhere on the L and subway system is 55 miles an hour.
The top speed allowed for Metra trains is 79 mph.
Metra’s system is being outfitted with “positive train control” — a more modern automated-braking system that’s supposed to prevent speeding and speed-related accidents. That system has been mandated by the U.S. government for passenger and freight railroads but not the CTA.
The absence of that technology was noted by the National Transportation Safety Board following December’s Amtrak crash in Washington state, in which a passenger train traveling 78 mph in a 30 mph zone violently derailed. Three people were killed, and dozens were injured.
In the deadly 2005 Metra derailment, a train thundered through a track crossover at nearly 70 mph in a zone where the speed limit was 10 mph.
With full implementation of positive train control a couple of years away — later than initially envisioned — it’s up to Metra train engineers on most runs to keep tabs on speed, which also is supposed to be visually monitored by the conductors on each train.
Metra records show five engineers were disciplined for speeding from 2013 through 2017 — including one train operator fired over a 2014 incident on the Rock Island District in which his train was going 17 miles an hour over the 30 mph limit.
Another Metra engineer — whose Rock Island District train was going about 20 miles an hour over the 40 mph limit in 2014 — was suspended, records show.
According to a spokeswoman, Union Pacific had six incidents in the same five-year period on the railroad’s Metra runs in which trains exceeded the speed limit by at least 10 miles an hour — the standard that federal regulators use to define speeding. She wouldn’t provide other details.