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Shedding light on emergency exits

There should be no feeling of deja vu the next time the Chicago Transit Authority is forced to evacuate train riders from subways, transit officials predict.

The deplorable, unsafe conditions that federal investigators found in CTA tunnels and along subway emergency exits after a series of derailments and equipment breakdowns dating to 2006 have been mostly corrected, said Steve Mascheri, a CTA general manager of construction.

The dangers ranged from dim lighting to crumbling exit stairs, poor signage and non-working emergency phones and ventilation fans. A $12 million project to upgrade subway safety began this year and is set for completion next spring, he said.

Some of the most noticeable transformations have occurred inside about 50 emergency exits lining the subway system. CTA officials put the changes on display for the Tribune during an exclusive down-under tour of emergency exits and subway tunnel evacuation routes last week.

The emergency exits are no longer dark, dank and dirty. Glow-in-the-dark green paint has been brushed onto handrails as well as on freshly painted white walls and stair riser treads to prompt passengers along the escape route toward new ladders leading to the streets above.

The paint, which absorbs light from new high-efficiency fluorescent bulbs in the multilevel emergency exits, is designed to provide adequate illumination for up to 12 hours in the event of a power outage, officials said.

“The green stands out. It will pop out even through smoke much more clearly,” said CTA President Ron Huberman.

When CTA project manager Chris Mulcrone shut off the lights during a test last week in an emergency exit in the Red Line subway near the North and Clybourn station, the green paint shined so brightly it appeared to be radioactive.

In addition, deteriorated walls and stairs have been patched or rebuilt and painted. New signs inform passengers exactly where they are located, in case they need to call 911 to provide information to first responders.

As part of the changes, the CTA will notify the Police and Fire Departments every time a train is delayed more than a few minutes because of equipment problems.

CTA train operators are also now equipped with cell phones to communicate with the transit agency’s control center in the event that radio communications are disrupted. Train operators have received training to reinforce the policy that they keep riders informed during a service stoppage or emergency.

Mayor Richard Daley ordered improvements after an April Blue Line subway incident in which it took the CTA 59 minutes to notify emergency rescue personnel about four stranded trains. Some passengers evacuated on their own when they saw or smelled smoke.

The new escape-path lighting runs along the tracks in the Red Line’s State Street subway, the Blue Line’s Dearborn Street subway and underground sections of the O’Hare branch of the Blue Line.

An 85-year-old woman was the most injured rider during an emergency evacuation from a derailed Blue Line train in July 2006. She lost her way in the dark and fell from a catwalk onto the tracks, accident investigators said.

Directional signs are posted every 400 feet to guide passengers to the closest exits, which are now marked by lighted exit signs. The spacing between the signs will be reduced to as little as every 100 feet as part of work planned for early 2009, officials said.

New emergency phones, highlighted by blue lights, have been installed along subway catwalks, and phones will be installed in some emergency exits too, officials said.

Still on the to-do list is applying the new paint to hand railings along the catwalks.

In addition, the CTA plans to replace the antiquated ventilation equipment in the subways when new state capital funding is available, officials said.

A new system of fans and exhaust devices, recommended by the National Transportation Safety Board in the wake of the 2006 derailment, is estimated to cost more than $400 million.

The existing subway fans have been repaired until funding is secured.

Huberman said he is confident that subway derailments are less likely because of a project to replace worn-out wooden track ties with concrete ties. The new ties do a better job securing the rails in place at the proper gauge, he said. In addition, unlike wooden ties, concrete ties are fire-resistant.

Despite the recent safeguards, the chances are that an evacuation that occurred in April, stranding more than 1,000 CTA rail passengers on four trains in the Blue Line subway, won’t be the last such incident. It’s likely that the improved tunnel emergency exits will indeed come in handy. Here’s why:

While the tie-replacement project has been completed in the State Street subway, only about 15 percent of the work has been done in the Dearborn Street subway. More funding is needed to finish the job, Huberman said.

Old trains still operating beyond their anticipated life cycles pose another potential danger. The CTA has placed orders for new trains, but delivery will be phased in over a number of years, pending future funding.