Six months after Yellow Line crash injured more than a dozen, investigation continues: ‘This never should have happened’

Six months ago, Stephen Helmer set out with his wife, daughter and toddler grandchildren to go sightseeing downtown, grab lunch and meet a friend.

They never made it.

About 10 minutes into their CTA train ride from Skokie, there was a “boom,” he told the Tribune, as their Yellow Line train slammed into a snowplow on the tracks ahead. Then panic, mayhem and screaming.

He and his family were thrown from their seats as riders went flying through the car, he recalled. He struck his head. His wife’s face hit a pole, and his daughter was flung into a panel near the train’s door.

The stroller with his twin grandchildren, at that time almost 2, was thrown up in the air and tipped onto its side. The twins were bruised, but escaped worse harm because they had been strapped securely in the stroller at the insistence of their grandmother, Helmer said.

In the months since the crash, questions have lingered for Helmer.

“We certainly would like to see some answers as to why this happened before we get back on any of these trains,” he said.

Six months after the Nov. 16 crash, which left more than a dozen people injured and closed the Yellow Line for seven weeks, few answers have emerged about what went wrong and how the crash could have been prevented.

The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating and has yet to officially determine the cause, though the agency has said it is gathering information about the signal and braking systems, reviewing CTA practices and examining “organic material” on the tracks. The NTSB also has not issued any urgent safety recommendations to the CTA, which the agency can do during an investigation.

NTSB investigations can often take a year or two. While the agency’s work continues, CTA officials have said they cannot discuss much about the investigation publicly.

Shortly after 10:30 that Thursday morning, as the Yellow Line train approached the Howard station near the border of Chicago and Evanston with 30 passengers aboard, it rear-ended a “snow-fighter” track-plowing train that was on the tracks for scheduled training. At least 16 people were taken to hospitals after the crash, three of them critically injured, according to a preliminary NTSB report. Initial reports from first responders had indicated 23 people were taken to hospitals.

Seven CTA employees were among those injured in the crash: six on the snowplow, and the operator of the passenger train. Two of the employees have returned to work, the CTA said. The head of the union that represents rail employees, Pennie McCoach, said the operator of the train has not yet returned.

The crash left the Yellow Line, also known as the Skokie Swift, closed for weeks while the CTA worked to ensure the safety of the line, examined its train system and conducted testing. Since then, the CTA has lowered maximum speeds on the Yellow Line from 55 mph to 35 mph, with speeds in the area of the collision lowered to 25 mph.

The crash also caused about $8.7 million in damages to equipment and sparked multiple lawsuits, including one filed by Helmer and his family.

It’s the latest challenge for CTA President Dorval Carter, who has been in the hot seat as complaints mount over the transit agency’s ability to provide frequent, reliable and comfortable service.

And for Helmer and his attorney, it has led to six months of questions and frustrations about how the crash happened.

“Why is it — and we’ve all read about the CTA and what’s evolved over the years — but how could (technology to identify obstructions on the tracks and stop the train) not have been in place, also as a system to prevent this collision?” his attorney, Richard Pullano, asked.

In a mid-December preliminary report, the NTSB found the train’s operator hit the brakes as soon as the signal system, which controls train movements, commanded the operator to stop. The operator then spotted the snowplow ahead and applied the emergency brakes on the train, made up of two, nearly decade-old 5000-series cars, which is CTA’s most common railcar model. A system designed to reduce sliding by the train’s wheels while braking had activated.

The operator knew the snowplow would be on the tracks for training, but didn’t know exactly where, federal investigators wrote.

NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy has previously said new signal systems have to allow for a longer train stopping distance than the current Yellow Line system, which the CTA said dates back to the mid- to late 1970s. Now, the Yellow Line system is configured to allow trains to stop in 1,780 feet or less. The train operator received a “stop” command from the system about 2,150 feet from the snowplow, the NTSB has said, but the train failed to stop in time.

Homendy has also said there was residue on the tracks and that the train’s wheels slipped as the operator tried to brake, and the NTSB is examining “organic material” on the tracks that can include contaminants such as leaf debris.

The agency is continuing to investigate the design and configuration of braking and signal systems and other factors, NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway said recently. The agency is also reviewing CTA operations and protocols.

Mark Walbrun, a retired transportation engineer who did not work for the CTA, said transportation agencies generally use braking algorithms to determine how long a vehicle needs to stop based on factors like the weight of the vehicle, speed and curves in its path.

It’s not unusual for rail signal systems to remain in use for decades. But braking algorithms are often updated when an agency starts using new equipment, or if an issue is spotted during routine maintenance, he said.

“It’s not necessarily dangerous, if you know about it,” he said.

The CTA said signals on its lines vary in age, but some lines have signals of the same generation as the Yellow Line. They have been examined and “validated to be in line with the typical stopping distances of our modern systems,” the agency said in a statement this week.

The CTA had not received reports of train wheels slipping before the crash, the agency said. It generally receives a “small number” of reports of wheels slipping on the system, usually in winter when the rails can be icy.

The CTA said the agency has no plans to upgrade the Yellow Line system, but has upgraded other lines in recent years, like the Blue Line between Jefferson Park and O’Hare International Airport. The ongoing rebuild of a section of the north side of the Red Line also includes signal upgrades.

The NTSB has previously recommended the CTA install a more robust type of train signal system, after a 2014 crash when a Blue Line train pulling into the station at O’Hare crashed through a barrier at the end of the tracks and landed on top of an escalator.

The Federal Transit Administration has not mandated that public transit systems adopt the more robust system, and the CTA has estimated it would cost nearly $2.5 billion.

The upgrades and purchase of new railcars laid the groundwork for further modernization of the train control system, the CTA said, but they didn’t amount to an upgrade of the type recommended by the NTSB in the past. There is no federal funding to implement the more robust type of signal system, the CTA said.

Skokie Mayor George Van Dusen hopes to sit down with Carter in the coming months to discuss a detailed plan to replace equipment in the next few years. Carter has, so far, been responsive to Van Dusen whenever he has reached out, but Van Dusen knows Carter has myriad priorities and wants to ensure the Yellow Line isn’t forgotten.

Keeping the Yellow Line up and running — and assuring residents that it’s safe — is a priority for the mayor. There is a station adjacent to the Illinois Science and Technology Park, a large center of employment in the village, and the train line features heavily in efforts to redevelop a nearby commercial area. It’s a key connector to jobs and schools in Chicago, and to the city’s two ballparks.

Ridership seems to be slowly returning since the Yellow Line reopened in January, Van Dusen said. Though trains are moving at lower speeds along the line, the speed restrictions are important to ensure safety, he said.

“We’re very proud of the Swift, and I want to be able to assure the public,” he said. “And part of that would be, it would appear that some of the equipment was aged, and it’s time to do some replacement.”

In the meantime, in the months since the crash, effects have lingered for Helmer and his family.

He and his wife were visiting their daughter from upstate New York to celebrate Thanksgiving and family birthdays when they found themselves thrown through the train car, Helmer said. It was his first CTA train trip.

“It was a family excursion that went wrong,” he said.

Immediately after the crash, passengers tried to help each other, Helmer said. He recalled one passenger moving through the train, trying to help and assess others, including Helmer. The operator of the train was “clearly in extreme pain and in a bad way,” he said, and some passengers tried to help.

Once electricity had been turned off to the tracks, first responders arrived, he said. Most of the passengers could walk, and they descended a ladder from an open train door to track level, he said. Then they were triaged.

He, his wife, his daughter and her twins were sent to various hospitals after the crash. His son-in-law, who was not on the train with them, helped coordinate the family and get everyone back home later that night, Helmer said.

In the months since, the family has spent time healing from physical, mental and emotional injuries, he said. He was thankful and impressed by the responders who came to aid the people on the train, but from the CTA, he wants answers about how and why the crash happened.

“It was bad enough as it was, and certainly there were some people who were more seriously injured than my family,” he said. “But when I think about what my family went through and had to deal with, I have flashes of anger about it. Because this never should have happened.”