REMEMBERING THE “L” CRASH OF 1977

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It was a Friday afternoon, February 4, 1977, just a little after 5:20 P.M. Office workers in Chicago’s central business district called “The Loop” were headed home. Many rode the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) elevated trains: the Ravenswood, the Lake—Dan Ryan, and the Evanston Express.

The elevated tracks formed a rectangular pattern above Lake Street, Wabash Avenue, Van Buren Street, and Wells Street. In 1977, three lines operated on the Loop. Each line operated in a different direction. Wikipedia, “1977 Chicago Loop derailment,” describes the situation: “The Ravenswood Line operated counter-clockwise around the loop, while the Evanston Express operated clockwise opposite from the Ravenswood trains. The Lake—Dan Ryan Line operated in both directions, but only used the Lake and Wabash legs of the Loop.”

On this day, a switching issue forced dispatchers to reroute the Evanston Express to run counter-clockwise around the Loop instead of its normal clockwise route. This put the Evanston Express on the tracks normally used by the Ravenswood and westbound Lake—Dan Ryan. The Ravenswood train would have to stop short and wait for the Evanston Express to clear the tracks before it could proceed. Likewise, the Lake—Dan Ryan would have to stop and wait for the Ravenswood to clear the track before it could proceed.

At approximately 5:25 P.M., a Ravenswood train was stopped on the tracks, just past the northeast turn, waiting for the Evanston Express to clear the State/Lake platform. The Lake—Dan Ryan approached the Ravenswood train, but it neglected to stop. Instead, ignoring both track and cab signals, it proceeded and bumped into the Ravenswood train.

What happened next could have been a scene from a horror movie. After the initial impact, the operator of the Lake—Dan Ryan train continued to apply traction power. Therefore, the rear cars of the Lake—Dan Ryan train continued to push forward. That pinned the front of the train against the waiting Ravenswood on the right-angle turn of the track. The pressure from behind caused the coupling bar between the first two cars to bend. The coupled ends of these first two cars were pushed up into the air. Then the third car was forced upwards until the three train cars jackknifed and fell off the tracks. The first train car fell onto a track support structure. The second and third cars fell all the way to the street below. The fourth car dangled between the track and street. The last four cars remained on the tracks, still in the Randolph/Wabash station.

Eleven people were killed, and more than one hundred and sixty were injured. The cause of the crash was determined to be operator error.

—By Karen Centowski


To see the video “El Crash Chicago 1977 (ABC News Special Report)—You Tube,” go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I1lcl_LOThw.