CHICAGO (CBS) — On Thursday, June 27, a Chicago Transit Authority train operator was seen laughing and waving as he pulled up to the 69th Street Red Line station.
Moments later, the train operator – distracted from the job – hit a woman named Felon Smith who had climbed down from the platform, onto the tracks, to pick up her phone. Smith was killed in the accident.
Heat sensors could have alerted the operator about a person on the tracks, and flashing platform lights might have warned the victim about the approaching train, but the CTA has neither.
A CBS 2 investigation has uncovered several solutions the CTA could use to better protect riders in what turns out to be a growing problem.
CBS 2’s Lauren Victory shared startling data Monday night, along with one family’s quest to stop platform trespassing.
A Man’s Death On The Tracks Remains A Mystery
Another incident involves the Roosevelt Orange Line stop. Jeremiah Pryor said his brother, Clark, was “just like a typical Chicagoan riding the train.”
But unlike the 600,000 commuters who cycle around Chicago ‘L’ tracks day in and day out, Clark Pryor never made it onto the train at all. He ended up under a train car and lost his life.
“Was there a problem that we didn’t know about?” Jeremiah Pryor asked. “Was it something we could’ve did? You know, was it something that we missed out?”
Jeremiah Pryor was told his brother took a life-ending leap and committed suicide.
“I didn’t believe it,” Jeremiah Pryor said.
Investigators didn’t seem so sure either. Clark’s final police report said he appears to jump or fall from the platform.
The CTA refused to give CBS 2 video showing the circumstances of the deadly accident. CBS 2 managed to get some of the footage from police.
Two cameras show the incident from far away, while a third shows Clark’s feet.
A key angle that CBS 2’s Victory saw from a source shows Clark stumbling around for at least five minutes before he careens off the platform. Another surveillance image from the ticket booth shows Clark swiped in 45 minutes before his death.
Could it all have been prevented?
“There’s no closure, you know?” Jeremiah Pryor said.
The way Clark died is still murky, but, Jeremiah said, “The crazy thing is that it’s still happening.”
The other crazy thing is that we can’t tell you how many times.
What Is Being Done To Track And Fix The Problem?
CBS 2 requested all incidents of a person on the tracks from the CTA, police, and the Office of Emergency Management and Communications. The three departments sent us back different logs with different numbers.
The CTA’s stats show someone lands on the tracks more than once every two days – whether the person got there intentionally, fell, or was pushed. The CTA’s records from 2017 and 2018 show almost a 5 percent increase in track trespassing.
How are customers getting down there onto the tracks – almost 600 times in the past two years? And could that number even be higher?
Clark’s case is not even listed on the CTA log.
“You have to really understand what your problems are,” said rail safety expert Dr. P.S. Sriraj, director of the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Sriraj believes the CTA needs to step up how employees document when things go wrong.
Victory: “As CTA, how can you sit down and try to study what you can do to fix the problem if you don’t even have an accurate reflection of what the problem is?”
Sriraj: “Well, that goes back to the resource issue.”
The resource issue? The CTA constantly trumpets its 32,000 cameras ,but it turns out that station attendants do not have access to that surveillance system.
CTA station attendants cannot see a live feed of what is going on at the platform – like when Clark Pryor was stumbling around for several minutes.
“That’s a big investment,” said CTA spokesman Brian Steele.
Steele said while the transit agency is moving forward with a plan to install monitors showing real-time video inside ticket booths, customer service assistants are not supposed to be in there all the time.
Steele: “The system that we have in place currently is one that’s been used successfully for decades now. Again, the idea is to have the customer service assistants moving throughout the station so they can identify an issue wherever a customer may have a question.”
Victory: “But there are still people falling off the platform, intentionally or accidentally, by more than a hundred a year. So I’m just struggling to understand why you wouldn’t have somebody keeping watch at all times?
Steele: “Well, I think it’s important to keep that number you referenced in context.”
What Steele was saying is that the amount of riders who fall pales in comparison to the number of riders with no issues. That is true, but it is not moving the needle on our safety record.
CBS 2 analyzed statistics reported to the Federal Transit Commission. Of the five rail systems with the most ridership – New York; Chicago; Washington, D.C.; Boston; and San Francisco – Chicago ranks number one for the highest rate of collisions between trains and people.
That holds true for 2016, 2017, and 2018 – and 2019 is following the same trend.
Just a few days before Felon Smith was killed on the Red Line, someone walking backwards to read the train schedule fell onto the platform at 35th and Archer on the Orange Line.
Police said she lay there for there for four minutes, and then a train ran her over.
Some Technology That Could Help
Dr. Sriraj said thermal imaging technology already exists to alert train operators if something or someone is on the tracks ahead.
There are also warnings about the incoming ‘L.’
The Metro system in Washington, D.C. uses platform lighting. Flashing lights are recessed into the floor near the edge of the platform – the same area where the CTA places blue rubber safety strips.
At O’Hare International Airport, platform screen doors only open when the terminal train arrives. They encase the whole station so no one can fall by accident or on purpose.
But Steele said, “The cost of the infrastructure investment is astronomical,” and most of the aforementioned solutions are too expensive.
Instead, the CTA is working on a revamp of platform safety awareness ads, which were first deployed in 2013.
Victory: “The statistics that I’m looking at do show an increase. So again, how can you be sure that your educational campaign is working? And what else can you do?”
Steele: “Well, I think we know that it’s working because we still see dialogue via our feedback channels that people have seen the ads and understand the ads.”
But an ad wouldn’t have saved Clark Pryor.
A Victim’s Family Demands Action
“It gets hard sometimes,” said Jeremiah Pryor.
The Pryors argue more watchful CTA workers might have stopped Clark – or at least the train.
“It’s not a money thing for us,” Jeremiah said.
In their wrongful death lawsuit against the CTA, filed by LegalRideshare, an admission from the general manager of safety – “CTA is made aware of unauthorized persons on the tracks several times a day.”
“We want to prevent that,” Jeremiah said.
How many more families might consider suing? The potential for tragedy can add up quick.
CBS 2’s Victory has worked on this story for months, and has learned a lot about the Chicago transit system – including which stops seem to experience the most falls or jumps.
Of the 576 reports made in 2017 and 2018, these are the top 15 stops where CTA is notified of an “unauthorized person on the tracks:”
1. Pulaski (Blue): 24 incidents
2. Howard (Red/Purple/Yellow): 23 incidents
3. Jackson (Blue): 20 incidents
4. Cicero (Blue): 20 incidents
5. 87th (Red): 15 incidents
6. Lake (Red): 14 incidents
7. Jackson (Red): 13 incidents
8. 63rd (Red): 13 incidents
9. Kedzie/Homan (Blue): 12 incidents
10. 79th (Red): 11 incidents
11. Western (Blue): 11 incidents
12. Belmont (Red/Brown/Purple): 11 incidents
13. Pulaski (Green): 10 incidents
14. Clark/Division (Red): 10 incidents
15. Clark/Lake (Blue): 10 incidents
Meanwhile, CTA spokesman Steele perked up when Victory talked about thermal imaging technology along the rails, but he would not reveal if that was in the CTA’s cards.
Steele stands by the educational campaign.