Former NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt says woman's death could have been prevented in Clarendon Hills Metra crash
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CHICAGO (CBS) — We have been looking for answers since a passenger was ejected from Metra train and killed when the train hit a truck in Clarendon Hills earlier this week.

Now, CBS 2’s Tim McNicholas has uncovered even more troubling information.

Robert Sumwalt is the former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board – which is investigating the accident. Sumwalt came forward Friday to say the death of 71-year-old Christina Lopez in the train accident Wednesday morning could have been prevented.

“Certainly, it’s a tragic situation,” said Sumwalt, now a CBS News transportation safety analyst and executive director of the Center for Aviation and Aerospace Safety and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.  “But it’s something that likely could have been prevented, had certain NTSB recommendations had been fulfilled by the Federal Railroad Administration.”

The NTSB made one of those recommendations about eight years ago, when Sumwalt was an NTSB board member. The agency found some passengers on a Metro-North Railroad train that derailed in the Bronx died on Dec. 1, 2013 “as a result… of ejection through windows.”

The NTSB recommended the Federal Railroad Administration, which regulates railroad rules, should “develop a performance standard to ensure that windows are retained…during an accident.”

The NTSB reiterated that request in 2015, when it found that some victims of an Amtrak train derailment in Philadelphia likely would have lived if the windows stayed intact.

But today, that request is still listed as open – and the FRA says they’re still researching the issue.

“When we see another accident with similar circumstances, and it hasn’t been corrected, that’s devastating,” Sumwalt said.

It’s a problem that dates back 50 years, when multiple people died after being ejected from a derailed Amtrak City of New Orleans train in Southern Illinois.

“In 1972, the NTSB noted that window ejections accounted for a large portion of passenger fatalities,” a 2015 NTSB report reads.

Sumwalt asid in 2016, the NTSB recommended the FRA conduct research on ways to prevent passenger injuries, such as seatbelts, and then develop a better safety plan.

What came of those recommendations?

“The NTSB is basically waiting for those recommendations to be implemented,” Sumwalt said.

As the FRA researches safety measures, the NTSB is investigating exactly how Lopez was ejected from the Metra BNSF Railway train after it a struck a truck Wednesday morning.

CBS 2 has reviewed video that appears to show her body strike a window – either dislodging or breaking it as the impact of the crash propels her out of the train.

It was a tragic moment.

“It’s even more tragic to endure an accident, and then make recommendations, and then those recommendations aren’t enacted upon – and then you have similar tragedies down the road,” Sumwalt said.

The FRA said they are committed to addressing the window recommendation once their research is complete:

Although NTSB currently classifies FRA’s response to Safety Recommendations R-16-35 and 16-36 as “Open – Unacceptable”, FRA continues to research and evaluate the causes of passenger injuries in various train derailment and collision scenarios and take appropriate action to address those causes as necessary. 

The recent Metra accident will be no exception and FRA’s investigation is ongoing. 

FRA notes that NTSB Safety Recommendation R-16-35 specifically calls for FRA to evaluate the use of seat belts in railcars.  FRA has previously evaluated the potential use of seat belts on trains and has found that, unlike the use of seat belts in motor vehicles and planes, adding seat belts to passenger rail vehicles is not an effective way to increase safety. 

In fact, FRA’s research has demonstrated that seat belts in passenger rail vehicles may do more harm than good unless every passenger remained belted at all times ( a condition that would be difficult, if not impossible, to enforce on passenger trains).  Although seat belts may provide added protection for belted passengers, seat belts will decrease protection for unbelted passengers and train crew members in passenger cars whose job responsibilities require them to be up and out of their seats while trains are in motion.  This is because the seat attachment to the car body must be strengthened significantly to resist the forces exerted on the seats due to belted passengers, resulting in a more hostile impact for unbelted occupants impacting the strengthened seats. 

Accordingly, FRA’s efforts have focused on passenger containment, interior attachment integrity, and ensuring that passengers survive secondary impacts.  As FRA noted previously, the agency expects that this continued research, coupled with the new focus into passenger rail vehicle occupant protection systems mandated by the recently enacted Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, will enable us to better identify potential design improvements to not only prevent accidents from happening in the first place, but also to minimize the risk of injury to passengers in the event an accident does occur.

Meanwhile, the commute has returned to normal after the Wednesday morning crash. All trains on the BNSF lines are back on the regular schedule, and stopping again at the Clarendon Hill stop.

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