Wednesday, May 25, 2005
An Idea for Safer CTA "L" Tracks 
by Lenka Reznicek [permalink] 
CBS2 Chicago has a feature story about an "uncovered danger" - exposed high-voltage "third rails" on the city's "L" lines that someone suddenly discovered was a "hidden risk" to riders:
Diagram of a typical third rail, image courtesy http://www.trackoff.orgSix hundred volts of electricity killed a man outside of Wrigley Field. He had just been to a Cubs game when he came across an uncovered danger that has claimed many lives. CBS 2's Dave Savini investigates hazards found across the city and in some suburbs.

Our undercover cameras captured a view of chaos outside of Cubs games and White Sox games. People are packed and pushed to the edge on narrow, overcrowded CTA “L” platforms. Just a few feet away is something so lethal it could kill someone in an instant. CTA workers in charge of crowd control are nowhere in sight. They are at risk of falling on the most dangerous part of the tracks: the third rail. "It could be anybody, it could be anybody that trips or falls or stumbles," Diana Parker said.

Third rails charged with 600 volts of electricity power the “L” and have claimed many lives. Parker’s son was killed on the third rail, now she wants to know what's being done to protect riders. According to what we found in the last two months, it’s not much. We brought hidden cameras to the “L” stops closest to US Cellular and Wrigley fields. People were forced to the edge. No one stopped the drinking or drug use. One fan says he's so drunk he needs to sit down.
The thing is (in my opinion) third rails aren't so much a "hidden risk," as an ignored risk. (Although I have heard there are - or were - a few grade-level "L" stations with unmarked third rails.) Without trying to sound unsympathetic, there are numerous graphic warning signs posted throughout the CTA train system at each station about the hazards of the third rail, and a broad yellow or blue traction treaded edge borders the platform - again with explicit, bilingual posted cautions not to stand past the threshold, because of "DANGER OF DEATH OR SEVERE INJURY."

Unfortunately, people disregard these warnings all the time: I see riders standing over the treaded edge, leaning over the tracks to see if a train is approaching from the last station, heck, even dancing to their iPods at the very edge of the platforms. The "drinking [and] drug use" mentioned above certainly doesn't help matters, especially during super-crowded ball game times.

I'm not sure how the Chicago train system could be made substantially safer using the existing tracks besides a major technical redesign - or some type of low insulating shield that provides a barrier next to the third rail, although finding a configuration that worked reliably on inside and outside tracks without causing mechanical failures would be tricky and expensive.

I do have one idea. How about some type of L-shaped guard that could be mounted adjacent to the "hot" rail where it is exposed at stations, that left one side exposed for electrical contact with the train, which would reduce the risk of accidental electrocutions without having to redesign the whole track structure? If a rider fell from the platform, they would be much less likely to make contact with the third rail. The guard could be made from some strong nonconductive material (or at least be lined with a layer of durable insulation), and would have periodic drainage holes to allow rain and snowmelt to run off. What would need to change would be the orientation of the electrical contact "shoes" under the trains themselves.

I'm no engineer, of course, and there are probably many good reasons why something like this wouldn't work...hopefully co$t isn't the main one.

More: CTA historic livery (train designs) at Chicago-L.org
The Eshoo v. CTA case (1999)
Bretl's CTA Machine Shop Gallery
Live From the Third Rail (a commuter train blog)
Trackoff.org (UK) Rail Electricity Dangers [PDF]
Kibo's "Orange Cones: Introductory Rant"-
Orange cones don't denote anything in particular in and of themselves, and they're usually not deployed in ways that give you much of a hint why they're there -- usually they're just sitting in corners in small groups. (Often the closest I can come to figuring out their intent is "Hey! There's an orange cone on this traffic island!") Orange cones are like the paprika on food-service mashed potatoes: You get tasteless potatoes with orange dots. These "safety" cones are designed to be highly visible, but because of their ubiquity and meaninglessness, we've been ignoring them. And while we've been ignoring them they've been taking over the world. [keep reading; Kibo's Orange Cone Galleries 1-4 are hilarious]