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Operator admitted dozing off; 'very chaotic' schedule at issue

UnionsTransportation DisastersPublic Transportation DisastersPublic TransportationCTA Blue Line Crash

The CTA Blue Line operator who admitted dozing at the controls had a "very chaotic" work schedule that played a role in the bizarre crash that left her mangled train atop an escalator, the transit union president said Friday.

At the same time, the official said the operator was distraught about the highly publicized wreck at O'Hare International Airport early Monday and that the "negative outburst" from the public about her and other CTA employees was unfair.

"We don’t want to see the public hurt," said Robert Kelly, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 308. "Let's be honest, we've all nodded off doing something. No one in this world is perfect. I'm not trying to justify this."

Kelly and the transit agency clashed sharply Friday on how many hours the unidentified operator had worked before the crash at the heavily-used station, which the CTA hopes to reopen sometime Sunday.

Kelly said the operator had worked 69 hours in the seven days prior to the crash. She was a fill-in employee, known as an "extra board," meaning she called in around 4:30 p.m. each day to learn her shift, he said.

CTA spokesman Brian Steele disputed Kelly's claim about the operator's hours, saying she had worked 55 hours in the seven days preceding the incident and was off for 18 hours prior to her shift during which the incident occurred. In the previous week, the operator's longest shift was 9.2 hours, Steele said.

The CTA accused the outspoken union leader of making "untruthful and irresponsible" claims in an attempt to interfere with the investigation into the crash, which injured at least 30 people and caused more than $6 million in damage to the train and station.

"As has become his common response in issues involving his union, Bob Kelly is again providing false and misleading information in an effort to distort the truth and divert attention away from his union," the CTA said in a statement shortly after Kelly spoke at a press conference.

Kelly responded that the CTA — which is facing lawsuits over a spectacular crash watched worldwide on video — has decided to attack him personally for his comments.

"They're calling me a liar, trying to discredit me," Kelly told the Tribune late Friday. "They've got to do something; they're being sued."

In response to Kelly's contention that the operator worked "strange" hours, the CTA said she was on the overnight shift for four days in the week before the incident and had one day off during that week.

The CTA said the operator had requested additional work hours — two shifts that added up to 13.6 hours — her right under the union's collective bargaining agreement. The CTA was required to provide those hours, the agency said.

The CTA said its process for scheduling is similar to that of every other transit agency in the country.

Kelly was the first to publicly speculate that the operator was fatigued. Speaking at a press conference soon after the crash, Kelly said there were "indications" that she had dozed off.

The union chief's comments immediately raised eyebrows. The union is generally a party to NTSB investigations and, as such, prohibited from publicly discussing cases in detail.

It wasn't until Wednesday that the National Transportation Safety Board lead investigator Tim Turpin confirmed that the operator told them she had indeed dozed off not just Monday, but also on Feb. 1 when her train overshot a Blue Line stop at Belmont.

During Friday's war of words, the CTA charged that Kelly's comments were a "clear attempt to interfere with the investigative process" and that he had tried to do the same thing six months ago during the NTSB's probe into the so-called "ghost train" crash Sept. 30 on the Blue Line.

The NTSB continues to investigate that collision, which occurred when an unattended four-car train slammed into a stopped Blue Line train at the Harlem-Congress station. The federal agency hasn’t made an official final report. The CTA fired two electrical workers and suspended two others.

Kelly acknowledged that the NTSB did not ask him to be part of the investigation into Monday's incident, but denied he was trying to obstruct it. His comment about the Sept. 30 incident was nothing more than "echoing" a remark by CTA President Forrest Claypool, he said.

Kelly said he had spoken with the operator and that her first concern was for the passengers on her train.

"She's distraught. She's upset. She's hurt," he said. "Don't pass judgment on her."

Whether or not the union will fight for the operator's job is unclear, and depends on what action the CTA takes, Kelly said.

"If we feel there is a just reason to fight (the CTA), we will," he said.

The CTA announced it would restore Blue Line rail service to O'Hare International Airport around 2 p.m. Sunday.

Shuttle bus service between the O'Hare and Rosemont stops will continue to operate until rail service is restored, CTA officials said Saturday.

Tribune reporter Juan Perez Jr. contributed.

rwronski@tribune.com | Twitter: @RichWronski

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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UnionsTransportation DisastersPublic Transportation DisastersPublic TransportationCTA Blue Line Crash
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