Sep 26, 2005
On Saturday, September 17, a Metra commuter train in Chicago derailed. Two people were killed and 80 people were injured, 17 of them seriously. The train, which had been switched over to a side track because of maintenance on the regular track, was going 69 mph at the time of the accident, when it should have been going 10 mph when it came up to a new switching intersection.
Metra, the public agency that runs the trains, immediately issued statements that everything in the system seemed to be running correctly. And it made a point to announce it had given the engineer a drug test. Metra also said that its equipment had been tested just before the accident. In other words, Metra was indicting the train crew before any investigation was done.
The engineer's union representative, who was present at the National Transportation Safety Board hearing, told the press that the engineer had seen seven green lights in a row telling him to go forward at 70 mph immediately before the accident. The Board threw him off the investigation, saying he was prohibited from making public statements, although Metra management had already made damaging statements. Why couldn't the engineer's side be told? Apparently, it had a lot of validity, otherwise they wouldn't be so worried.
With good reason. An identical accident occurred at the exact same spot in 2003, under the same conditions – high speed, with the train crew saying they weren't warned to brake it down, which resulted in 45 people injured. Any cop will say, a coincidence is a red flag – that someone is guilty. In this case, the finger points at Metra, which has made no change in the system since the first accident.
Of course human error causes accidents, since we all make mistakes. That's why there should be back-up safety controls. Such controls exist for this situation, called positive train control that can brake a train if it doesn't slow down before reaching low speed tracks. Mark Rosenker, the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, admitted, "positive train control would prevent that type of accident."
Metra says it's too expensive. It's possible it doesn't have the money since Metra gets all the money for its track and equipment from the U.S. government, which has been consistently under funding transportation and other parts of the infrastructure for decades now in order to give more money to the wealthy.
Like the inadequate levees in New Orleans, the absence of proper controls on the Chicago commuter rail lines led to the needless loss of lives.