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Sunday, February 4, 2024

CTA Skokie Swift Smackup

In November 2023 an inbound "Skokie Swift" Chicago El train rear-ended an MoW vehicle stopped on the track waiting for signal clearance into the Horward terminal interlocking complex. The impact took place at a speed of 26mph and the NSBT was quick to blame "outdated" signal stopping distances that were last set whenever cab signaling was installed on the line, likely in the 1970's or 80's. The result was a multi-month service suspension and a reduction in maximum authorized speed from 55mph to 35mph, which was achieved by disabling the 55mph cab signal code at ever block location. To the lay person this might seem open and shut, the CTA did something wrong and they fixed the problem. In reality this is a classic example of go slow safety scolds and risk averse CYA officials pushing people away from public transport. This case is especially ironic since when the Skokie Swift opened in 1964, it was a demonstration project on how rapid transit could be high tech, modern and fast compared with the "square cut gear" era equipment.

For background, the CTA uses a pretty standard audio frequency cab signaling system with automatic speed enforcement and speed codes for 15, 25, 35, 55 and 70mph. Lack of code is fail safe and registers 0 mph and it is standard practice on this type of system to have sufficient 0 code behind any train for fail safe stopping. While most of the Skokie Swift is straight and uncongested, allowing for 55mph operation, the the busy Howard terminal will frequently see Skokie trains encountering stop signals and thus need to reliably slow from 55mph to 0 starting at a point about 2500 feet from Howard Interlocking's home signal. This would be carried out by progressively slower cab signal codes, although it is not clear if the operator gets a 0mph code ahead of the wayside absolute signal or at it, where a physical trip stop is also provided. The following CTA produced head end video of an inbound Skokie Swift run shows how this progression from 55mph to stop is well within the vehicle's performance envelope. The 55 to 35mph code change point is encountered at 7:55. Code change points are identified by small black boxes, called impedance bonds, located between or adjacent to the rails.

Feel free to judge for yourselves, but it appears that the first code drop is just before the hand throw crossovers about 2500 feet before the Howard absolute signal as stated in news reports and the last code drop is located under the overpasses at the final curve. It is not entirely clear if the final drop is to 0mph and the train takes the time shown to react and stop (likely) or if the operator chooses their stop point on a more favorable 15mph code (possible) or even if a timer that drops out the code mid-block is involved (unlikely). (Note: It's pretty trivial to determine how CTA trains get stopped before absolute signals by observing the cab signal display in the cab from the first car, I just haven't done so in a while so let me know if the comments.) The difference between normal operations and the day of the collision was the presence of an MoW snow melting vehicle on the inbound main track about 370 feet short of the Howard interlocking home signal. Had everything been working as intended, the train following the MoW vehicle should have gotten stopped before the final code change point under the overpasses.

The NTSB's knee jerk assessment implied that the following train somehow couldn't get stopped in time. As in it got the proper speed codes, but the speeds and distances were calculated incorrectly and it ran into the snow melter. Given that the line has been operating without incident for 60 years this seems unlikely, however the train was a newer 5000 series car that has only been operating for 15 years so it is possible something like crushed leaves resulted in decreased braking that combined with a heavier vehicle could have resulted in the observed accident. Still, is there an alternative explanation?

What stands out to me is the impact speed of 26mph. That's pretty much full speed approaching the final code change point. Typically when stopping distances have gotten out of sync with the equipment you see the rail equivalent of foot faults where the train can't quite get stopped in time. Remember in this case, if the block before Howard interlocking is occupied the second to last code change point should be giving a 0mph. It's almost like the train was approaching the MoW vehicle like it wasn't there. Moreover the operator indicated that the signal system commanded a speed reduction from 55 to 25 or 35 ~2100 feet from the equipment (or ~2500 feet from the Howard signal). If you refer to the video you can see the train begin to slow from 55mph at that same point, but again, that is for an unobstructed block before the Howard signal. If that block was occupied the inbound train should have gotten a signal drop one block before.

By this point I've already given away the twist. Maintenance of Way vehicles and other things the FRA likes to classify as "track cars" are known to not reliably shunt the track circuit and therefore need to be run with absolute block protection, especially to the rear and double especially when cab signals are involved. In cab signal territory if a track car fails to properly shunt the track circuit, not only will it not be detected by the signaling system, but favorable cab signal codes can also be transmitted to trains approaching from behind. Rail contamination like leaf debris only makes this problem worse.

To be clear, I have heard stories of trains having braking issues and sliding past calculated stop points as a result. For example an Acela locking up its wheels approaching Trenton and sliding for over 2 miles allegedly resulted in an extra block of speed control being added. Still, every detail about the indecent matched up with a loss of track circuit shut involving a track car and an approaching Yellow Line train that received cab signals in the sequence expected for a stop at the Howard interlocking home signal. It's certainly possible that the signal design created some grossly unsafe condition as the NTSB is implying, but the decades of safe operation imply otherwise. Unfortunately signal distances are easy to calculate and in addition to using the worst possible braking performance and the worst possible rail condition, the NTSB might actually believe rail vehicles need to emergency brake short of any obstruction they encounter within the range of vision.


  1. It's not about trains "having braking issues", but trains with properly functioning brakes YET under a very low wheel-rail adhesion. Albeit at a extremely rare occurence, such incidents do happen. A recent example is the collision on the Changping Line of Beijing subway ( ).

    1. I wasn't sure how else to refer to an issue that prevents a train from braking within the intended distance.

      Like I said I am aware of situations where trains go slip sliding into a thing, but the impact speed seemed higher than I'd expect and if the cab signal first dropped at 2500 feet out, the track car either wasn't detected or the signal system was designed to treat the block before the home signal like it didn't matter. The later would be a serious oversight that somehow went undetected for 40 ish years.

    2. As for the Changping Line collision, emergency brake was activated on the following train (#032) when it was 519 meters away from the stalled train (#024) and at a spped of 92.952 km/h. The impact speed was 48.6 km/h. ( ) Slippery does reduce the brake effort to the extent that wouldn't usually be expected.