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Chicago derailment highlights difficulty of protecting passengers of transit systems

Associated Press Writer

CHICAGO- Everyone got out alive, the train operator did as he was trained and the passengers did as they were told. Still, that a small fire on a major commuter line could leave passengers gasping for air and send 152 of them to the hospital highlights just how vulnerable transit systems are to disaster.

The derailment and fire inside a Chicago subway line Tuesday came the same day massive explosions on trains in India killed at least 200 people - a frightening reminder that there is no easy way to protect passengers on commuter trains, particularly those that run underground.

Officials and others say that after the last car of an eight-car train derailed, things went about as well as possible. They praised the train's operator for getting passengers off the train quickly and noted the orderly way the hundreds of passengers made their way through a darkened and smoky tunnel to an emergency exit.

"In terms of what this could have been, I think this was a remarkable achievement that they could get that thing evacuated with very few injuries," said David Schulz, director of Northwestern University's Infrastructure Technology Institute.

The cause of the derailment and fire was under investigation, but law enforcement officials said they had found no indication of foul play or terrorism.

The incident, which disrupted the routines of thousands of commuters, reminded many that train and subway systems have been far more seriously affected by terrorist attacks, such as those in London last year and Madrid in 2004. A suspected plot to attack New York's subway system was recently uncovered.

"One of the reasons, of course, terrorists are moving to trains is they are less protected, they are more open, there are systematic problems with protecting them," said Ivan Eland, a security analyst who is director of the Center on Peace and Liberty at the Independent Institute, a research firm. "Also, airport security has improved a lot since 9/11, so terrorists are taking their attacks where security isn't."

Such an attack was certainly on the minds of commuters Wednesday.

"People were thinking about anthrax and terrorism," said Yvette Mangren, who was on the train in front of the one that derailed Tuesday night. "It's really sad our country and city has come to this."

As she walked to work Wednesday, Mangren said the incident was especially stressful because as the smell of smoke drifted into her train car, the voice on the train's intercom said only that the train was stopped for a signal change.

"They're saying, `We're waiting for a signal change, waiting for a signal change,' and we could smell smoke," she said.

Chicago Transit Authority spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler defended the announcement, saying it was accurate and was part of a strategy to move trains into stations.

"Basically, what was done was done to move that train out and into the station, and that was done fairly quickly," she said. "It was a tense situation, but we were providing information as quickly as possible."

National Transportation Safety Board investigators on Wednesday interviewed the operator, the only crew member on the train, as the board tried to piece together what happened, said NTSB member Kitty Higgins.

The operator has worked for the CTA since March 2005, but Tuesday was just his second day on the line where the derailment occurred, Higgins said.

The train was too old to have a data recorder, now required in newer commuter trains, she said.


Associated Press writer Carla K. Johnson contributed to this report.

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