|One year later: is Metrolink safer now?|
CHATSWORTH, Calif. — On Sept. 12, 2008, at precisely 16:22:23 (4:22 p.m.), exactly 1.25 miles past the Chatsworth Metrolink station on the Ventura County line, the world as 222 people knew it was unalterably shattered. Twenty-five people on board Metrolink No. 111 heading from Union Station in downtown Los Angeles to Moorpark did not survive the trip. Another 135 were injured, 46 critically. All aboard the commuter train are now part of a statistic: the deadliest Metrolink accident ever and the worst train crash in the country in 15 years. If any one of the many layers of mistakes, delays and failures had not happened, that Friday afternoon in September might have been completely forgettable.
If only 46-year-old engineer Robert Sanchez had not been absorbed in texting teenagers up to 22 seconds before the crash. If only Sanchez had glanced up and tried to apply the air brakes before smashing head-on into a 500,000-pound Union Pacific freight train. If only Sanchez had seen the red light and waited on the turnout until the freight train had safely passed on the single track that they shared. Or the conductor on No. 111 had applied the emergency brake, as he was supposed to do, when Sanchez failed to call out the signals twice before the impact. Or the operators of Metrolink, Connex, had removed Sanchez from his job for repeated reports of forbidden cell phone use, as was ordered by Metrolink. The list goes on and on.
So many failures in what appeared to be a well-designed system with fail-safe redundancy. All of the above safety violations were caused by human error or worse, a complete disregard for procedures. The passengers had no inkling that such a deadly combination of neglect and misbehavior by those who held commuters' lives in their hands would almost certainly result in a devastating train wreck at some point. It was not a question of if, but a question of when.
A rush to action
New legislation swept through Congress within weeks of the Metrolink crash and was signed into law on Oct. 16, 2008, by President George W. Bush. Barely one month had passed since the accident, and a 315-page bill had flown through the legislative process. The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 was hailed by transportation officials and organizations as a landmark change that set reasonable deadlines for the implementation of positive train control (PTC).
However, a closer examination of the law reveals that it more resembles a suggestion than a commandment. Some of the deadlines, which range from April 2009 to the end of 2012, mostly require that programs be articulated, procedures be in place and plans submitted. Actual and material changes in the way in which the railways are operated are not mandated sooner than seven years out, or 2015.
In the interim, Metrolink board President Keith Millhouse said some safety measures have been taken or are in the process of being implemented. Immediately following the Metrolink crash, Millhouse said, a program called Second Set of Eyes was put in motion. It places a second person in the locomotive cab to provide some oversight of the lone engineer.
But Millhouse said even that modest move has its downside. "The limitations are, you have to have people with certain training, so we are using extra Metrolink staff and engineers as they are available. When there is a second set of eyes, there is the potential for distraction like talking or doing other interaction."
Automatic train stop is another safety system that has been added to Metrolink. However, this device was created early in the 20th century in response to devastating crashes attributed to trains traveling too fast. It is a device in the tracks that sounds a signal in the cab if the train is speeding. Should the operator of the train fail to acknowledge the warning, the train is automatically slowed.
Experts say this system would not have prevented or lessened the damage from the Metrolink crash. Millhouse said automatic train stop certainly is not a panacea for all safety problems. "It is somewhat outdated technology." But it has been placed into the Metrolink system at speed-sensitive locations and, "we're just at the point now where we're ready to turn on the system."
There has been much publicity and some controversy on the subject of placing inward -facing video cameras in the cabs. "We had some pushback from the union leadership," Millhouse said. "With the precedent this will set around the country, I think the unions are a little nervous. But in my opinion, passenger safety trumps any reasonable expectation of privacy. Having said that, we don't want the videos floating around on YouTube just for entertainment purposes."
A failure in management of the Metrolink operations that contributed to the accident was publicly revealed during the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) hearings. Apparently, the company that was contracted by Metrolink to run the operation of the trains, Connex, had been made aware of Sanchez's cell phone use while operating the train. Connex managers did not enforce the absolute prohibition on cell phone use and failed to remove Sanchez from the cab.
Sanchez also permitted teenage boys to ride in the cab and even to operate the train controls during passenger runs, multiple times. According to the last text sent by Sanchez seconds before the head-on collision, just such an event was planned for later that same day.
"When the allegations that Connex had prior knowledge of some of these activities, or the activities with ride-alongs were occurring, we instructed Connex to replace the managers that were responsible for overseeing the operations on behalf of Connex," Millhouse said. Connex will remain in charge of all Metrolink operations until 2010 when the current contract expires.
Metrolink had been considering three options as to which entity would run the operations beginning June 2010: Connex, Amtrak or Metrolink. Last week, the Metrolink board voted unanimously to begin negotiations with Amtrak on a sole-source contract to provide train crews for the entire Southern California region served by Metrolink and to replace Connex.
Board members said that time was too short to keep the operations in-house. However, if negotiations with Amtrak do not move quickly, they said, they would still have the option to bring the train crews in-house.
Metrolink board members said they must have the authority to make unannounced crew inspections and to operate inward-facing video cameras. Amtrak is no stranger to Metrolink operations. It provided the train crews and operations to Metrolink before 2005.
Latest, greatest technology
Crash energy management is one of the newest concepts in railway safety technology. It encompasses both crash avoidance and survivability in a crash. For Metrolink, Millhouse said, part of that translates to the newest, most advanced rail cars and cabs, which have already been ordered.
"These new cars will have crumple zones and energy absorption areas," Millhouse said. "It has things like bolts that shear off and piston-like contraptions that, if a train is hit, it would crumple and absorb that crush. It has crush tubes that compress. The new crash energy management cars will have new couplers, which are designed to better withstand separation from the cars so it will help prevent derailing."
Millhouse added that even more new ideas are being incorporated into these advanced cars. "Most of them will be backward-facing seats," he said. Seat belts will not be in the new cars. "Seat belts have the potential of trapping people, not being operational, and some people just won't wear them, although the benefits and drawbacks are somewhat crash-specific."
Millhouse said Metrolink will be leading the way in safety design. "These new cars will be the most technologically advanced commuter rail cars in the country," he said. "They are scheduled for delivery over the next 18 months."
One common zone of danger for the commuter trains is where traffic crosses the tracks, so Metrolink has designed sealed corridor crossings to lessen the opportunity for confusion by drivers or the temptation to try to beat the train.
The biggest and most complex technology that has been the focus of much debate and hope is called positive train control (PTC). The NTSB even has PTC on its official Most Wanted list of safety improvement systems. Due to its complicated nature and the necessary cooperation of all rail freight companies as well as passenger and commuter railways, the cost is quite high. In fact, it has been deemed too high to economically justify for a long time.
Millhouse said PTC is the Holy Grail for Metrolink. "It is what everybody is looking to as the ultimate safety system on a railroad," he said. "But the system can never be foolproof."
The unavoidable complexity of both PTC and the Southern California rail system make the reality of this collision avoidance system both expensive and extremely difficult to manage. "We have the largest and most congested and densely congested operating system in the country," Millhouse said. "Within the Metrolink operating system, you have Metrolink, Amtrak, Union Pacific, Burlington Northern Santa Fe and the Coaster system in San Diego."
Metrolink is attempting to equip all of its locomotives and trains for PTC by 2012, with the freight railways under a statutory deadline of 2015.
There is a clause in the original contract between Metrolink and the freight railroads, which own the single track now shared by freight and passenger trains, that shifts the financial burden of equipping the freight lines for PTC entirely to Metrolink. And according to findings from the NTSB inquiry into the Metrolink crash, the crew of the Union Pacific train that collided with Metrolink was not completely without fault. During 2008, Union Pacific inspectors noted 643 cell phone violations by crew members. The Union Pacific conductor sent and received 41 text messages the day of the crash, 35 while the train was moving. The report shows that both trains were visible to each other for four seconds. Union Pacific did not hit the brakes for two seconds. Brakes were never applied on the Metrolink.
Holly Arthur, spokesman for the Association of American Railroads (AAR), was asked whether she thinks that freight train safety has improved during the year following the Metrolink crash. Holly responded that this year could be one of record improvement for safety. "Railroads will continue to work together and with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA, the government agency that took over responsibility from the former Interstate Commerce Commission) to implement positive train control (PTC) technologies across our networks by the 2015 deadline. Safety is the top priority for our nation's railroads. Our continuous efforts to innovate and improve are evidenced by an enviable safety track record."
Just give me money
So exactly how is all this new technology going to be paid for? And how much will it cost?
On Aug. 5, 2009, a press release issued by Senators Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and John D. Rockefeller IV, D-W. Va., was titled "Rockefeller, Boxer Applaud Funding for Rail Safety Grants." The senators "lauded the Senate Appropriations Committee for fully funding a new railroad safety technology grant program, created by the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008."
The release announced that $50 million had been appropriated for the program in response to a request to fully fund the PTC technology. Boxer said, "We cannot afford to wait to install positive train control." Additionally, $500,000 was included to "help Metrolink install PTC."
Millhouse said those figures are not realistic. "The cost just for the Metrolink equipment alone and the wayside signals that are necessary on the Metrolink-owned portion of the track are about $200 million," he said.
"I don't purport to understand how sausage gets made in Washington," Millhouse said. "It's a little bit frustrating to me that we don't get larger sums of money more quickly because there is a tremendous need. I find it a little mind-boggling that we can, as a country, spend hundreds of billions of dollars in a stimulus program and not have a very small percentage of that devoted to commuter rail safety in the Southern California region."
Speaking on the Senate floor shortly after the Metrolink crash, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., summed up the nature of the long-running problem: "Safety has to come first. I don't believe it has. I believe cost has."
Millhouse also said that residents of Ventura County may only have themselves to blame for the fiscal problems. "In Ventura County, we're the poor stepchild of the state and federal government because we don't have any matching funds," he said. "We'll be in line with everybody else, but we are really basically at the back of the line because we don't step up. We can't wait for Sacramento and Washington to solve our transportation."
The human tragedy
Amidst the political flying fur and speechification of various agencies and politicians, there remains the toll of suffering and loss from the Metrolink disaster. Kim Brower, owner of Pulse Drumming in Ventura, is 45 years old and has three grown children. However, they remain at home under her care because all three are special needs young adults. Brower's husband of 23 years, Dean Brower, never came home after he left work in Burbank on No. 111 (now changed to No.118) last September. He was 51 years old.
"They didn't find my husband until they pulled the engine out of the train car," Brower said. "My husband was actually the one they were pulling out by a crane as the Governor was making his big speech."
Brower said her late husband was an enthusiastic advocate of public transportation in all forms. "He rode the Metrolink even on his days off," she said. "He couldn't understand why people didn't use it more."
"The lesson learned here is, in the blink of an eye, when we least expect it, our entire lives can be changed and we never know when that is going to be," Brower said. "You need to live every moment as if it truly is your last."
But Brower is more concerned for others who were in the crash. "Those people who survived and are living every day in pain without a leg or with bone-crushing injuries, those people have somewhat been forgotten," she said.
Millhouse does think about the survivors because he often rode the rails back to Moorpark with his good friend Kipp Landis. Millhouse said he was not on the No. 111 that Friday because his usual meeting downtown had been canceled. Had he been sitting with Landis, one of them surely would have been killed, but his friend survived because he was sitting in a rear-facing seat and was thrown toward the back of the car.
"He was very, very seriously injured," Millhouse said. "They had to cut him out of the wreckage. He was in there a long time. I remember being told he heard a responder yelling, 'We've got a live one over here!' "
After spending many hours taking care of business at the Moorpark train station that day, Millhouse said, when he turned to finally go home, the bitter sadness of the day overwhelmed him. "I remember leaving and there were still a lot of cars in the parking lot," he said. "It really hit me at that point."
Many of those cars belonged to passengers who had not made it back to the Moorpark train station where they had parked earlier that day.
Written by :