Video: Train derailment

updated 9/20/2005 12:56:32 AM ET 2005-09-20T04:56:32

A fatal train derailment last weekend might not have happened if the route had an automatic system that applies a train’s brakes when an engineer fails to do so, a federal official said Monday.

“I believe it (the braking system) would have prevented this type of accident,” said National Transportation Safety Board acting chairman Mark Rosenker.

Metra has automatic braking systems on three of its 11 routes serving Chicago and its suburbs, but commuter rail officials say it is expensive and not essential.

Investigators are trying to determine why a Metra train was traveling nearly 70 mph Saturday when it derailed while switching tracks, a maneuver that required it to slow to 10 mph. Two people were killed in the accident.

An automatic braking system slows the train if the engineer misses or ignores a signal, Metra Deputy Executive Director Richard Tidwell said.

‘A very expensive item’
It would cost roughly $200 million per line to equip trains on the other routes with that feature, said Metra chairman Jeffrey Ladd.

“We have no reason to believe that it’s necessary. But if it were, it’s a very expensive item,” Ladd said. “We’d have to get the money either from the state or the federal government.”

So far investigators have found that train signals seem to have been working properly at the time of the derailment, which should have given the engineer enough time to slow the train before switching tracks, Rosenker said.

NTSB investigators are looking for other reasons why the engineer did not slow the train before the switch. On Monday they interviewed a dispatcher and trainee who were working at a control tower Saturday and determined the appropriate radio signal was sent to alert the engineer of the crossover.

Recent inspections found no problems
Mechanical and equipment investigators found nothing unusual at the accident scene and records showed previous inspections found no problems on the route, Rosenker said.

A final report in the investigation could take 12 to 24 months, he said.

The double-decked commuter train carrying 185 passengers and four crew members was headed to Chicago from Joliet when its locomotive and five rail cars jumped the tracks about five miles south of downtown.

Jane Cuthbert, 22, a freshman at the University of Illinois at Chicago, was one of the two people killed in the derailment. Attorneys for her mother and brother sued Metra in Cook County Circuit Court Monday.

Commuters return to route
Eleven passengers remained hospitalized Monday, Metra spokeswoman Judy Pardonnet said. One was listed in critical condition, while the others had non-life-threatening injuries, she said.

Metra riders returned to their morning commute Monday with the derailment in their minds.

“I was very concerned today getting on the train,” said Karen Freeman, 43, who commutes from the South Side to her court reporter job downtown on the same Metra line as the derailment. “But I’m confident they’ll get to the bottom of it.”

Investigators on Sunday interviewed the 41-year-old train engineer, who had been on the job for 45 days before the accident. He and three other crew members have been put on paid leave pending the results of toxicology testing, which won’t be available for a few weeks, Pardonnet said.

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