Violations Before LA Crash Stir Rail Safety Debate

March 11, 2009

The human error detailed in hearings on the 2008 Metrolink commuter train disaster that killed 25 people has stirred debate over what the rail industry can do to ensure passenger safety for at least six more years until technology is installed that could prevent another collision.

The tragedy occurred when a Metrolink train ran a red traffic signal and collided head-on with a Union Pacific freight train on a single shared track in California’s San Fernando Valley.

Federal investigators have found a rash of rule violations involving the crews of both trains: The Metrolink engineer was text messaging 22 seconds before the collision and was planning to let a teenage train buff drive the train that evening. Also, the conductor of the freight train was texting while he was on duty and tested positive for marijuana.

After the Sept. 12 disaster in suburban Chatsworth, Calif., officials stepped up efforts to improve safety measures. Federal regulators banned cell phone use by train operators and Congress passed a new law requiring technology to stop trains on a collision course. The law requires the installation of a computerized “positive train control” system by 2015.

While making plans to deploy the costly and sophisticated technology, Metrolink has added a second person in the locomotive cab and plans to install security cameras focused on train operators. However, the union representing the nation’s train engineers opposes putting cameras in the trains, and some safety experts question its efficacy.

William Walpert, an official with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, said the recording device would be “overly intrusive.”

George Gavalla, a railroad safety consultant and former head of the Federal Railroad Administration’s safety office, said installing cameras and hiring people to monitor hundreds of hours of recordings will be expensive. He said the money could be better spent on positive train control.

“I question how effective it’ll be as a deterrent,” Gavalla said. “There’s cameras all over the place, but do they prevent robberies all the time?”

Metrolink, a 512-mile system operated by a five-county regional rail authority, said it will cost nearly $1 million to install 218 cameras and recorders, but officials have not determined how they will monitor or review the recordings. The cost of monitoring the videos, and how to address the privacy concerns of train employees are also being determined.

“You have to make sure that people reviewing the data and analyzing it keep it secure,” agency spokesman Francisco Oaxaca said.

Union officials are also advocating that all passenger, freight and commuter trains employ two workers in the cab to provide a second set of eyes, but safety experts worry that in some situations it could create unintended distractions.

Often an engineer works alone in the locomotive cab while the conductor is performing other duties.

“With another person in the cab, the workers could get into a conversation and affect each other’s concentration,” said Najmedin Meshkati, a professor of industrial and systems engineering at the University of Southern California.

Two engineers were in the cab of a Metrolink train that ran a red signal and sideswiped a freight train, causing four minor injuries, in the weeks after the deadly September crash.

During a National Transportation Safety Board hearing on the Chatsworth collision, NTSB member Kitty Higgins noted that the conductor of the Union Pacific train was texting in the locomotive cab even while sitting next to the engineer. She said federal investigators found out about the texting after receiving an anonymous tip from “somebody outside.”

“The issue of safety in numbers is not the case here,” Higgins said.

While experts agree it will take time and money to install positive train control, they say the short-term solution is to improve the safety culture at railroads by adding more inspectors, boosting random field tests and reinforcing company rules.

“It’s a matter of having enough managers out there providing oversight for their employees,” Gavalla said.

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