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By Jon Hilkevitch, Chicago Tribune reporter | October 5, 2013

The unoccupied CTA train that crashed into a stopped Blue Line train carrying passengers this week had been left with the power still on in a storage yard by CTA workers, the National Transportation Safety Board said Friday.

While issuing emergency recommendations to the transit agency, safety board officials said the CTA needs to immediately improve safeguards against unintended train movements — and not only on the Blue Line’s Forest Park branch.

The NTSB said its ongoing investigation into the wreck has revealed that out-of-service CTA trains are “routinely left powered-up while stored and with the brake setting that would allow movement.”

CTA officials disputed the assertion that this was routine. “Out-of-service trains are typically not powered up,” CTA spokesman Brian Steele said.

The crash involving the “ghost train” — as some CTA rail employees dubbed it — caused minor injuries to more than 30 riders aboard the eight-car train it struck at the Harlem station Monday morning.

The safety board said the safety lapses must be addressed “expeditiously to prevent a recurrence,” but Steele said the CTA had already added new safeguards before the NTSB issued its recommendations.

The runaway four-car train was parked in the yard, at the western terminus of the Forest Park branch, with power to the propulsion system, lights and other equipment activated for possibly days before the incident, a source close to the investigation disclosed, on condition of anonymity.

At the Forest Park CTA yard, which is near a high-crime neighborhood, CTA workers typically leave trains powered up so that rail car lights can be turned on to help illuminate the yard and discourage graffiti and vandalism to the trains, the source said.

While issuing its “urgent safety recommendations” Friday, the NTSB disclosed that the four-car train traveled almost 1 mile downhill through five mechanical train-stop mechanisms before reaching the Harlem station.

During the trek, the emergency brakes were applied and the driverless train was momentarily stopped several times by the mechanical train-stop mechanisms, called “trips,” as it proceeded to the Harlem station.

“After each stop, the train started moving again because the master lever on the operator console had been left in a setting that allowed the train car brakes to recover and reset from the emergency brake application and proceed through a mechanical train stop mechanism after a momentary stop,” said the NTSB report accompanying the recommendations.

The safety board said that cutting the rail cars’ propulsion power and using an alternate brake setting could prevent unintended movement. Even if a train were to move on its own, cutting off propulsion power would ensure that a train would stop and remain stopped at a mechanical train-stop mechanism, the NTSB noted.

Another recommendation was to place chocks in front of wheels to prevent rail cars from moving in the yard.

The recommendations, signed by NTSB acting Chairman Deborah Hersman, were directed to CTA President Forrest Claypool.

After the release of the NTSB recommendations, the CTA on Friday issued a bulletin to its rail personnel laying out new and existing lockdown procedures to be strictly followed when trains are stored or placed on hold in a yard.

The rules include disconnecting battery terminals to prevent rail cars from powering up, and preventing electrical connections when cars are coupled so that one car cannot energize another, Steele said.

“The CTA took these steps shortly after Monday’s incident and before the NTSB recommendations were made,” the spokesman said.

“Our current procedures are belts and suspenders. We are adding an extra belt,” he said.

Two of the four cars on the runaway train had been in the yard on hold since late September, waiting to be transferred to a CTA repair facility in Skokie for maintenance, Steele said earlier in the week.

Those two rail cars were in the lead positions as the four-car train pulled into the Forest Park yard, the sources said. When the runaway train left the yard Monday morning, the two cars previously in front were now the last two cars, pushing the train, said another source close to the investigation.

NTSB inspectors said one of the cars was found to have thermally damaged wiring and water in electrical connection boxes on the car. They said the CTA has begun inspecting other rail cars to determine whether similar conditions exist in the fleet.

Safety board investigators are expected to remain in Chicago until Sunday. Although the NTSB noted that the power had been left on the train, the agency said it had not yet determined the probable cause of the accident.

Twitter @jhilkevitch

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