Metrolink crash led to changes in train safety

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It’s been two years since a Metrolink commuter train ran a red light on the tracks in Chatsworth and slammed into a Union Pacific freight train. Twenty-five people died in the crash — and more than a hundred others were injured.

The Chatsworth disaster motivated change nationwide in two key areas.

Kitty Higgins was hosting an engagement party for a friend’s daughter when she got the call about a commuter train crash in Southern California. That weekend, Higgins was the “on call” board member for the National Transportation Safety Board. She missed the wedding and flew to L.A. to find out what happened in Chatsworth.

"The image for me," she says, "was this very beautiful neighborhood. Chatsworth is a lovely area, very residential. And to see this bright yellow Union Pacific train crashed into — crumpling the front end of this Metrolink train — I mean the force of that was just overwhelming."

The NTSB investigation into the Metrolink crash in Chatsworth concluded an engineer was sending text message on his cell phone — and didn’t see a red signal. Deborah Hersman, who chairs the NTSB, says it was a human failure. She says the safety board has long recommended technology as a redundant backup for human failures.

That technology is called Positive Train Control. If a train runs a red light, PTC puts on the brakes automatically. Hersman says the NTSB has pushed the technology for decades. She says the safety board first began making recommendations about positive train control "in the 1970s."

Within a month of the crash, at the urging of California’s two Senators, Congress passed the Rail Safety Improvement Act. It requires passenger trains to install Positive Train Control by 2015. Metrolink and Union Pacific pledged to do it by 2012, making Southern California the first urban region in America with the crash avoidance technology. But who pays for it?

"That’s a very good question," says Jo Strang, chief safety officer for the Federal Railroad Administration. "And that’s actually the question that’s on everybody’s mind."

Strang says Congress offered a $50 million grant program for railroads nationwide. But the price tag for Metrolink alone tops $200 million. Strang calls this "a financial stressor." She says none of the commuter railroads that operate within the United States have funds to pay for positive train control.

Metrolink says it’s cobbled together the funding it needs from federal, state and local sources — mostly bonds. But California’s budget crisis has put the state money at risk.

Railroads are asking Congress for an investment tax credit, but tax credits of any kind are toxic in an era with a growing federal deficit. Still, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says he thinks the national deadline for installing positive train control will be met. "I do. I think we’ll be there by 2015."

LaHood says he’s more concerned about the NTSB’s other key finding: that the Metrolink engineer broke the rules by texting while he was at the train’s controls. LaHood says half the battle is good training.

"The other part of it is just personal responsibility. When they have a busload of people, or a trainload of people or an airplaneload of people, their main responsibility is to get those people there safely. And they can’t do that if they’re on the phone or on their Blackberry or on their computer."

National Transportation Safety Board Chair Deborah Hersman says you need to do "whatever you can do to keep people on task, focused on the responsibility at hand and the job that they’re supposed to be doing, we need to pursue that because those lives lost in Chatsworth can’t be in vain."

Toward that end, Metrolink last year installed cameras in the cabs of trains to monitor crews. Last May, Metrolink managers took an engineer out of service and put another under investigation. They say the engineers tried to block the cameras’ view; the engineers union says they were trying to shade their eyes from the sun’s glare.

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