CTA acknowledges communication breakdown

April 21, 2008 4:43:47 PM PDT
A communication breakdown is apparently to blame for the chaotic scene on the CTA Blue Line last week. Hundreds of passengers, frustrated by a lack of information, evacuated the trains following an equipment problem.

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley said Monday the CTA needs to do a better job of communicating. The mayor said he is not blaming anyone but pointed out that the city's Office of Emergency Management was not informed about the Blue Line breakdown until an hour after it happened.

What happened last Tuesday morning began as a mechanical problem on a 40-year-old rail car. It was an electrical short that's usually fixable in short order, but this time the fix didn't work, and one thing led to another. The CTA acknowledges that communication with passengers on four trains stopped in the subway was inadequate, and because this began as a simple mechanical problem, nobody called the fire department for nearly an hour, a failure that displeased the mayor.

"Thank God no one was injured, thank God no one was killed, and that's what we just want to avoid. I'm not trying to blame anyone. I'm just saying, I think we can all do a better job," said Mayor Daley.

Since they weren't notified for nearly an hour, firefighters didn't arrive in the tunnel until after some angry passengers had decided to self-evacuate. From now on, whenever a train has a problem underground, OEMC will be called right away. It doesn't mean that firefighters will be immediately dispatched, but if it rises to an emergency, they'll be ready to roll.

Problem two was the failure to keep passengers fully up-to-date.

"We needed to be informed more on what was going on, and how long this was going to take, and when we were going to get out of there," said Tripp Watson, Blue Line passenger.

Passengers on one of the four stopped trains in the subway said they kept hearing the train operator announce, for nearly 90 minutes, that they'd be moving shortly. They got fed up and exited the train.

The CTA acknowledges communication failure, saying there was so much traffic on CTA radios that messages were garbled and lost. The plan now is to equip train operators with special cell phones -- operable in the tunnel -- as another means to communicate with the CTA control center.

"We're adding the phones specifically so we can coordinate with the specific train operators in the area to make sure they're making the right kind of announcements. On some trains we were making good announcements and had no issues. On other trains we were not," said Ron Huberman, CTA president.

Some riders, though, say train operators were working cell phones, but information was still lacking. The CTA says it's going to launch new training in emergency procedures for all its train operators. What it does not intend to do is reinstitute the presence of conductors on trains in the subways.

"I can't understand why the CTA refuses to do something that I think is just a no brainer that gives the comfort to the passengers, not to mention gives an extra pair of eyes and ears and hands to help you out," said Rick Harris, Amal. Transit Workers 308.

The CTA says it will not revisit the conductor issue. It does have on order new rail cars with much more sophisticated communication gear. The first of them won't arrive until 2010.

In the meantime, the CTA is exploring other ways to improve communication in the subway were this situation to repeat itself.


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