32 hurt in Chicago derailment: What caused surge in train's speed?

Officials are investigating what caused a train to accelerate to such a speed that it jumped a series of safety bumpers and traveled up an escalator at Chicago's O’Hare International Airport.

Kenneth Webster/NBC Chicago/AP
A Chicago Transit Authority train car rests on an escalator at the O'Hare Airport station after it derailed early Monday, March 24, 2014, in Chicago. More than 30 people were injured after the train jumped a series of safety bumpers and traveled up an escalator early Monday.

Federal officials are investigating what caused an eight-car passenger train in Chicago to accelerate to such a speed that it jumped a series of safety bumpers and traveled up an escalator at O’Hare International Airport early Monday.

“I’ve investigated many accidents, and many trains do different things, it’s all about kinetic forces. I have not seen an accident like this personally,” said Timothy DePaepe, a rail investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which dispatched a six-member team to Chicago to investigate.

The derailment and crash sent 32 passengers to four area hospitals, although no injuries were serious. By noon Chicago time, they had all been released.

“We know what happened, but we don't know why it happened," Larry Langford, a Chicago Fire Department spokesman, told reporters.

Mr. DePaepe said his team plans to interview the driver of the train, who was hospitalized, to learn about her experience, plus what she was doing in the 24 hours before arriving at the job. He said the train did not have an event recorder, but did have an outward-facing video recorder.

Other areas the NTSB plans to investigate are the train’s signal system, mechanical elements like the brakes, and any human factors that may have led to the crash. He said the train was not equipped with a system that automatically stops runaway trains, but that is not uncommon.

“Usually it’s about the money,” DePaepe said about the lack of such an emergency system. “The transit systems do the best with what they have.”

The crashed cars will remain as they are for at least 24 hours before being removed. All data evidence, including video, will be sent to Washington for examination.

Earlier in the morning, Chicago Transit Authority spokesman Brian Steele told reporters that the rail station’s “bumping post” at end of the line failed to stop the train from jumping the track.

“Typically what happens is the train will stop short of that. This train did not do that, and apparently was traveling at a rate of speed that clearly was higher than a normal train would be,” Mr. Steele said.

Last September a runaway assembly of four rail cars on the same line slammed into an eight-car passenger train, injuring 33 people. In its report, the NTSB said the driverless train was left running while awaiting repairs. The agency delivered several recommendations to the CTA marked “urgent,” including a review of operating and maintenance procedures for unoccupied cars.

In November, the CTA fired two electrical workers and suspended a rail union switchman and a rail car yard cleaning supervisor, saying their errors contributed to the crash.

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