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Wear and tear blamed for Metra derailments

(The following story by Azam Ahmed and Kristin Kridel appeared on the Chicago Tribune website on October 3.)

CHICAGO — The derailments of two trains on separate tracks at the same South Side location Tuesday were the result of regular wear and tear, not vandalism or tampering, Metra officials said this afternoon.

The cause of the derailment appears to be a slight separation between the tracks, caused over time by train traffic and cars that ride over the tracks at a road crossing near the South Shore station, a Metra spokeswoman said

"It has to do with the track itself just wearing over time and the gauge between the track being just a little too wide," said spokeswoman Judy Pardonnet. "Just over time it can become separated as a result of the train and cars going over it."

Pardonnet called the derailments "crazy" coincidences.

"It's not completely uncommon to have an occasional derailment where the wheel comes off the track, but what is extremely rare is to have two in one location on two different tracks," she said.

Metra re-opened the crossing for cars shortly after 1 p.m. today.

"It's been investigated, it's been inspected, and now . . . everything is back to normal," Pardonnet said. "We don't expect any further action to be taken."

The FBI is no longer investigating the derailment, said spokeswoman Cynthia Yates. Agents had been looking into a possible link to last week's vandalism of tracks on a different branch of the same train line.

"It was determined [the derailment] was mechanical and not intentional, and therefore it is a Metra investigation," Yates said.

Train service resumed this morning on the Metra Electric District Line after two Tuesday afternoon rush-hour trains derailed by the same station, about and hour and a half apart, on Chicago's South Side.

No one was injured, but the derailments of the southbound trains at the South Shore station at 71st Street and South Shore Drive knocked out service to the South Chicago branch of the line Tuesday night, authorities said.

The northbound tracks reopened early this morning, enabling train service to resume, Metra spokeswoman Meg Reile said. Although both derailed trains have been removed from the tracks, crews were still completing repairs.

If repairs continue through the morning rush period, inbound trains will be switched to outbound tracks around the area, albeit at reduced speeds, Reile said. "It should only be minimal delays," she added.

The derailments came a week after Metra discovered that about 30 spikes had been removed from tracks at 100th Street and Dauphin Avenue, prompting the FBI to investigate a possible link between that incident and the derailments.

Pardonnet said the first southbound train that derailed, carrying about 300 passengers from Chicago's Millennium Station, was about to stop at the South Shore station when it left the tracks 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.

The derailments caused delays of at least an hour and a half along the route Tuesday evening.

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

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.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

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