The 'faulty bumping post' might have saved lives in the CTA train accident at O'Hare Airport

Thankfully, no one was killed and the 30-some  people did not suffer life-threatening injuries in the spectacular crash of a CTA L train on Monday in the O'Hare Airport Terminal.

The question has come up, though, whether injuries could have been prevented if the "bumping post"--a heavy, metal shock absorber at the end of the line--"failed" because it allowed the train to jump the tracks and climb the escalator toward the station entrance.

The post, it was suggested, should have stopped the train, but the post instead bent backward, helping to propel the train beyond the end of the tracks and up the escalator.

Actually, this was a good thing.

If the train had traveling at an excessive speed, as some observers believe, an instant, sudden stop would have propelled passengers inside the train around the interior like ping-pong balls, causing much more serious, if not fatal injuries.

This question came up in National Transportation Safety Board hearings on the causes of a  horrific accident on  Oct. 30, 1972, when a speeding Illinois Central express commuter train smashed into the rear of another train at the 24th St. station, killing 45 people and injuring 332. Many were killed because the first car of the  express train "telescoped" into the rear car of the lead train. (The interior of the new, lighter new car of the lead train was penetrated by the intact body of the heavier, older car of the express train.)

When I was covering the NTSB hearing for the Chicago Daily News the question arose: Why couldn't train cars have been designed that were strong enough to prevent the two trains from telescoping together in that fashion? The answer was: If the two trains had collided at the speed that the following train was traveling and had been instantly and abruptly stopped, people on both trains, in all the cars, would have been hurled about by the force of the collision and the fatalities and the injuries could have been worse. In effect, the telescoping of the trains absorbed the energy of the collision.

I searched the coverage of the CTA O'Hare crash in hopes that I would find a similar explanation to help readers and viewers understand the dynamics of such accidents. I finally found it in an AP story by  Priya Sridhar and Carla K. Johnson who quoted  Joe Scheieterman, a longtime transportation expert at DePaul University:

Jumping the track likely dissipated the forward movement, thus lessening the accident's severity, said Joseph Schwieterman....

A more abrupt stop would have slammed people more violently into the train's seats and walls, he said.

"That was a lucky break," he said. "A train hitting a wall at ... high speed could easily have been fatal for many."

What was America's greatest come-from-behind war? Go here to find out.

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    Chicago Tribune contributing op-ed columnist and author of forthcoming historical novel, "Madness: The War of 1812." Reporter, editor and columnist for Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Daily News. Freelance writer and editor.

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