CTA Yellow Line trains rumbled down the tracks Friday morning and pedestrian crossing arms dinged as passengers crossed into stations and boarded railcars along the line for the first time in seven weeks.
The familiar noise meant the reopening of the train line to Skokie after a Nov. 16 crash on the tracks, which came as a relief to riders such as Loyola University Chicago student Melissa Curth. Heading back to her apartment in the city Friday morning, she said she was happy to no longer have to rely on the free shuttle buses CTA had provided during the closure, which were hard to track and much slower than the train.
“I’m really happy that it’s running again,” she said. “It makes it a lot easier to go see people.”
The CTA has attributed the lengthy closure to a desire to ensure the line, also known as the Skokie Swift, was safe before reopening. During the closure, the agency examined its train system, conducted testing on the line and asked the National Transportation Safety Board to return to Chicago for a second visit, as questions lingered about the factors contributing to the crash.
“I will never, never, compromise safety for expediency,” CTA President Dorval Carter said as he marked the reopening of the train line at the Oakton-Skokie station Friday morning, occasionally interrupted by the sound of arriving and departing trains and the occasional passenger passing through.
The closure followed a collision between a Yellow Line train and a snowplow that was on the tracks for scheduled training. The passenger train was approaching the Howard station, near the border of Chicago and Evanston, when it slammed into the “snow-fighter” track-plowing train. 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.
The crash also caused about $8.7 million in damages to equipment and sparked multiple lawsuits. The seven CTA employees injured — six on the snowplow, and the passenger train operator — are recuperating, CTA spokesman Brian Steele said.
In the mid-December preliminary report, the NTSB found the train’s operator tried to brake before the crash, and a system designed to reduce sliding by the train’s wheels while braking had activated. The train was made up of two, nearly decade-old 5000-series cars, which is the CTA’s most common model railcar.
The NTSB is still investigating the crash, but Chair Jennifer Homendy has previously said the Yellow Line signal system, which controls train movement, was old, and if it were designed today it would have to allow for a longer stopping distance for trains. She 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.
Asked if the CTA would consider upgrading the signal system, Carter declined to provide specifics, saying the answer was part of the NTSB’s investigation and he was limited in what he could say about the federal agency’s work. He said the CTA had reviewed the rest of the system to make sure no other lines had signal features similar to those identified by the NTSB.
The CTA also reviewed tracks, train operations and communications during the closure. The agency tested all of its railcar models on the Yellow Line, and ran tests in a variety of weather conditions and at a variety of speeds.
No other CTA lines have characteristics similar to those of the Yellow Line, Carter said. Among the features that make the line unique are wooded areas where leaves sometimes overhang the tracks. The CTA also studied the line’s sightlines and track curves and angles.
During the closure, the CTA also requested the NTSB return to Chicago to conduct further testing and meet with the manufacturer of the railcar that crashed. Federal investigators had previously been on-site immediately after the crash, and ended their second visit Dec. 20.
Now, the line is reopening with several temporary safety measures, including lowering maximum speeds from 55 mph to 35 mph. Speeds in the area of the collision are lowered to 25 mph.
Crews have power-washed the line to clear rails of debris and residue, and are allowing equipment to move on the tracks only after receiving a verbal command from the CTA’s control center. Supervisors will also join operators on the first few Yellow Line runs.
Carter has said the NTSB did not direct the CTA to make any of the changes. He could not say how long the temporary measures would last, saying only they would be in effect until “we have no concerns about the safe operation of the Yellow Line.”
Skokie Mayor George Van Dusen said the Yellow Line is critical to residents of Chicago and Skokie. It is also crucial to the success of the Illinois Science and Technology Park, a business park near the Oakton station focused on biotechnology and nanotechnology companies that employ about 1,600 people, he said.
“We need our riders to know that when they board the CTA, it is safe,” he said. “Accidents happen, but they need to be corrected. And I feel that, that is what happened.”
Curth, the Loyola student, takes the Yellow Line a couple of times a week to visit her parents in Skokie or friends. During the closure, she sometimes skipped visits home or outings with friends, finding the shuttle buses too inconvenient and unpredictable.
Now that trains are running again, she feels less limited in where she can go. She can also more easily visit her favorite cafe in Skokie.
Another rider who gave his name only as Pete, boarding the Yellow Line to Howard for an advocacy meeting, felt somewhat anxious to get back on the train after a nearly two-month closure.
“Hopefully everything is safe,” he said. “Safety is the main thing.”
Still, he was relieved the line reopened before baseball season, he joked, saying without the Yellow Line he didn’t know how he would get down to Wrigleyville for Cubs games this spring.
Sophie Fu, 15, hopped on the Yellow Line on her way home from Target, where she picked up food for her cat. The crash inspired her to make the CTA a focus of a school exam that required her to write a letter to a local politician about a problem, she said. She called for more funding for public transit.
With the Yellow Line open, she has more freedom to venture into the city, she said. She had her mom’s permission to take the train down to Chicago’s Chinatown neighborhood with a friend, a journey they had planned before the crash shut down the train line.
“There’s not many places I can go to,” she said. “I have to go on the Yellow Line to get to places.”