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Metra trains jump tracks

(The following story by Kristen Kridel and Dan P. Blake appeared on the Chicago Tribune website on October 2.)

CHICAGO — Two rush-hour passenger trains on Metra's Electric District Line derailed on separate tracks by the same station on Chicago's South Side, about an hour and a half apart Tuesday evening, prompting the FBI to investigate a link to suspected sabotage on the same line last week, a Metra spokeswoman said.

No one was injured, but the derailments at the South Shore station at 71st Street and South Shore Drive knocked out service to the South Chicago branch of the line for the entire night, Metra spokeswoman Judy Pardonnet said. She was uncertain whether the trains would be operating during rush hour Wednesday morning.

"We'll have to find out what happened here before we can have trains operating here again," Pardonnet said.

The derailments came a week after Metra discovered that about 30 spikes had been removed from tracks at 100th Street and Dauphin Avenue.

At a news conference Tuesday evening at the scene of the derailments, Pardonnet confirmed that agents from the FBI and the Joint Terrorism Task Force were at the location investigating.

"It's rare to have two derailments at the same location," Pardonnet told reporters.

Last week, spikes had been removed from the main tracks of the Electric District Line, which runs outbound to University Park, according to Metra. Tuesday's derailments occurred on the South Chicago branch of the line, which breaks off and runs to the 93rd station.

Pardonnet said the first southbound train, carrying about 300 passengers from Chicago's Millennium Station, was about to stop at the South Shore station when it derailed at about 4:50 p.m.

"It was rumbling like it was off the track before it made it to [the station]," said Eva Johnson, 45, who works nearby.

"The train was coming past and then we heard a big boom," said another witness, Richard Branch, 49.

At 6:20 p.m., the second southbound train, with about 200 passengers aboard, was being directed around the first derailment when it derailed, Pardonnet said.

Workers at the scene of the first derailment "saw the wheels simply pop off the track" on the second train, she said.

Asked whether there was any evidence of vandalism to the tracks in Tuesday's derailments, Metra spokesman Patrick Waldron said, "It's much too early [to say]."

FBI officials could not be reached Tuesday for comment.

The derailments caused delays of at least an hour and a half along the route Tuesday evening. Earlier Tuesday, before the derailments, the FBI announced a reward of as much as $50,000, offered jointly by the FBI and Metra, for information leading to the arrest of the person who tried to disable the Metra train tracks last week on Chicago's Far South Side.

On Sept. 24, a Metra inspector found that about 30 spikes had been removed near where the tracks cross over the Bishop Ford Freeway, officials said. The tampering could have caused a passing train to derail and prompted the FBI to open a criminal investigation into what it called sabotage.

The spikes were removed with a specialized tool. One of the tools was found in weeds near the track, which is used by Metra Electric Line and South Shore trains.

"While no injuries or loss of life resulted from this incident, the removal of these spikes was certainly an intentional act and will be aggressively investigated by the FBI," Robert Grant, the special agent in charge of the FBI's Chicago office, said in a statement issued Tuesday.

Experts have said that removing the spikes would have been hard to do and that the offender likely had experience in using the crowbar-like tool.

Anyone with information is urged to contact the FBI at 312-421-6700.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

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