Monday, June 11, 2007
Safer Tracks: A Covered Third Rail? 
by Lenka Reznicek [permalink] 
Chicago's subway and train lore are filled with tales of people electrocuted or severely injured as a result of touching the live "third rail" that supplies power to the trains. What's puzzling is the city's (and the CTA's) frequent contention that this is an inescapable fact of life (or acceptable risk) with 'third-rail'-powered public transit.

I don't believe that's exactly true. I snapped this photo of the Metro train tracks in Washington, DC, which shows a simple way the third rail can be made safer - the top of the third rail is covered with a firm insulating canopy at stations (not along its entire length) to prevent most accidental contact with the high-voltage rail. So why hasn't the CTA implemented a system like this? For one, this safety feature does require a mechanical change to the train - the third rail shoe needs to be side-contacting, not vertically-contacting, as is the case with existing Chicago 'L' trains; and granted, changing the third-rail shoes on all CTA trains and installing insulating covers above the hot rail at stations would be fairly costly. But besides the covers over the third rail Washington uses, the rail itself is almost identical* to that used by the CTA. Wouldn't it be worth the price in lives saved and reduction of liability/injury settlement costs?

Perhaps not; the cynical part of me suspects the city might rather occasionally throw some money at injured plaintiff families than invest in a system-wide safety improvement on aging transit infrastructure that is increasingly costly to maintain. Not to mention that with the CTA once again threatening "doomsday" service cuts, investment in new safety equipment is probably the last item on the agenda. On the other hand, with Chicago gunning for Olympic City status, is upgrading our public transportation system to modern safety standards currently available in other major U.S. cities really too much to ask?

* DC's Metro third rail voltage is nominally 750V, Chicago's CTA uses 600VDC.

More: The case of Eshoo v. CTA (1999), Illinois Appellate Court docket No. 1-97-1138. Also Lee v. CTA (1992) CBS-2 Chicago carried a feature on the third-rail hazard in May 2005, video available at their site.

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