O’Hare train accident part I: Operator fatigue

One of the biggest news stories here in the Chicago area continues to be the crash of the Chicago Transit Authority train at O’Hare Airport one week ago today. An incoming train crashed into the terminal and actually climbed an escalator as it destroyed nearly everything in its path.

Transportation accidents of this magnitude nearly always prompt an investigation, and rightly so. Initial investigatory efforts have so far revealed that the train accident was likely the result of operator fatigue. The 25-year-old operator has admitted to falling asleep prior to the crash. The larger issue now being debated publicly is whether her fatigue was caused by personal issues and choices or whether it is indicative of larger CTA policy problems.

The operator in the crash is a member of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 308. The Union has come to her defense and blames the CTA for the way it handles staffing and shift schedules.

Union president Robert Kelly has said that in the week prior to the crash, the operator put in 69 hours at work. CTA officials say she only worked 55 hours, but neither side seemingly disputes the fact that she worked significant overtime.

Kelly also said the operator works irregular shifts at all times of day. She apparently calls in each day to find out her schedule and fills in for other operators when they cannot work their shifts. Inconsistent work hours coupled with considerable overtime could easily lead to fatigue and a higher crash risk.

Was the fatigue a result of poor individual choices or systemic problems at the CTA? If the operator was primarily to blame, was the CTA also negligent? Did other, redundant safety mechanisms fail? Please check back later this week as we continue our discussion. We’ll talk about other recent news reports suggesting that the CTA has a poor safety record compared to rapid transit systems in other major U.S. cities.

Source: NBC Chicago, “Train Operator Behind O’Hare Crash Identified,” Phil Rogers, March 29, 2014