Passengers evacuated from CTA tunnel

Blue Line train stalls downtown
April 15, 2008 8:47:02 PM PDT
There were some scary moments in the tunnel after a CTA Blue Line train malfunctioned Tuesday morning, stranding commuters below. Hundreds were evacuated from four trains to the streets above. No one was seriously injured but a few people were taken to hospitals as a precaution.

Shortly after 8 a.m. a car on the Blue Line malfunctioned as the train was approaching the Clark and Lake station, stranding hundreds of passengers. Blue Line trains were running again by early afternoon.

It was not a derailment. There was no fire and there were no serious injuries. But there was a lot of anxiety, a good bit of anger, confusion, and most certainly inconvenience Tuesday morning when a train broke down in the subway and other trains behind it had to sit behind it.

"I've never been stuck on the train that long before. Everybody was very nice, consoling each other, saying it's ok, but I was really scared," said Holly Murphy, Blue Line passenger.

It was a southbound eight-car train that developed an electrical problem and shut down just before the Clark-Lake platform. Efforts to get the train moving again took time. Three other crowded rush hour trains were in the tunnel behind it and couldn't move.

"They just told us that we just can sit there, and everyone started laughing, 'That's crazy they're gonna tell us just to sit there.' We have school and work to go to," said Paul Huerta, Blue Line passenger.

Some of the passengers on one of the trains decided "we're not staying" and they started to self-evacuate on a walkway above the electrified third rail.

"People were getting frustrated being in there because the power was off and it was starting to get hot inside," said Tripp Watson, amateur photographer.

"The conductor really got angry with them and started calling them stupid, telling them to get back on the train and they think they're so smart. The people on the train starting laughing because they didn't know if the people outside could hear it," said Mary Gallagher, Blue Line passenger.

"Once they were self-evacuated off of the train, our security protocols required us to immediately remove power from the whole system," said Ron Huberman, CTA president.

Firefighters and CTA workers then led hundreds of riders, many who had been on their stopped trains in the subway for 90 minutes, up stairwells to the light of day. One woman fainted, several had trouble getting air, but there were no serious injuries.

Still, for regular Blue line riders, memories of the Blue Line derailment and fire on July 11, 2006, remain fresh. There were serious injuries in that incident and the post-accident investigation revealed critical maintenance, management, and communication short-comings at the CTA.

Eighty-five-year-old Elfa Lari was seriously injured in that incident and Tuesday agreed to a settlement with the CTA for $1.25 million.

Her attorney says the CTA failed to communicate with passengers then and Tuesday.

"There was again no effective communication, which certainly did nothing but add to the stress of these people," said Dan Kotin, Corboy and Demetrio.

Millions have been spent since that incident on track repair. The subways are better lit and have signs pointing to exits. The fire department has conducted training exercises for just such an occurrence as Tuesday, and they believe Tuesday's emergency response went well.

And, yet, many riders say communication wasn't what it should have been.

"We continue to retrain and train all of our personnel that making communications is absolutely critical. And to the degree that that didn't work today, and the investigation will bear that out, we plan to take action," said Huberman.

The rail car that developed the problem is an older model built in 1969. The CTA has new rail cars on order. They have more sophisticated communication gear.

CTA union leaders, however, suggest that there is no way a single motorman on a train can diagnose a mechanical problem, fix it, while at the same time adequately communicate with all his passengers, the control center, and other trains. Their argument is have a conductor on each train, at least on the subway.

"To ask one man to evacuate eight, nine hundred people, that's impossible," said Rick Harris, Amalgamated Transit Workers #308.


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