NTSB: Train was speeding just before it derailed

Monday, September 19, 2005

CHICAGO -- A commuter train was going almost 60 miles per hour over the speed limit just before it derailed, killing two people and injuring dozens, the acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board said Sunday.

Mark Rosenker said the Metra train was traveling at 69 mph and should not have been going faster than 10 mph when it switched tracks at a crossover, causing it to jump the tracks Saturday.

"Sixty-nine miles an hour is very, very fast when you're dealing with a 10-mile-an-hour restriction," Rosenker said.

The speed information came from a preliminary reading of one of the train's three electronic data recorders, also known as a "black box," Rosenker said.

The NTSB will also examine other factors to determine why the train was going at that speed, including records of the train signals, radio transmissions from a control tower and toxicology reports on the crew, he said.

Part of the investigation included an interview Sunday with the train engineer. The 41-year-old had been on the job for 45 days after completing Metra's six-month training program, which included at least some training along the route where the derailment occurred. He also worked for more than five years as a CSX Corp. freight train engineer.

Investigators have determined that nothing was abnormal with the tracks, which had just been inspected on Friday, Rosenker said.

The double-decked commuter train carrying 185 passengers and four crew members was headed to Chicago from Joliet Saturday morning when its locomotive and five rail cars jumped the tracks about 5 miles south of downtown.

The train began to derail as it switched tracks, striking a steel bridge just beyond the crossover, Rosenker said. He said that collision damaged at least one rail car and likely contributed to at least one of the fatalities.

Jane Cuthbert, 22, of Bourbonnais, died on the train, said Judy Pardonnet, a spokeswoman for Metra. A Cook County medical examiner's office spokeswoman declined Sunday to release the name of a 30-year-old woman who died Saturday after being transported to Chicago's John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County.

The women were the first people to be killed in a derailment in the history of the commuter rail system that services the Chicago area.

A similar derailment occurred on the same stretch of track in 2003, injuring about 45 people. A preliminary NTSB report found that the train was going almost 70 mph at the location where it was supposed to switch from one track to the other.

Pardonnet said the train and the track had just been inspected Friday and the derailments may have been just a coincidence. "I don't think it's anything specific to this area, but it's still under investigation," she said.

Pardonnet said the engineer in Saturday's derailment is taking three days paid leave for "trauma debriefing." She said no decisions have been made about his future employment, although findings from NTSB's investigation could determine whether he keeps his job.

Train service on the Rock Island District Line resumed about four hours after the derailment, and the cleanup from the accident could cause short delays along that line on Monday, Pardonnet said. The train was traveling to Chicago from Joliet when the derailment occurred.

The injured passengers were taken to 15 area hospitals and 15 people remained hospitalized Sunday, Pardonnet said. She did not have information on their conditions.

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