Two years after Chatsworth crash, Metrolink tries to look forward

A plaque at Los Angeles' Union Station entitled "Unfinished Journeys" honors the passengers and rescuers who were affected by the Sept. 12, 2008 Metrolink crash in Chatsworth.
A plaque at Los Angeles' Union Station entitled "Unfinished Journeys" honors the passengers and rescuers who were affected by the Sept. 12, 2008 Metrolink crash in Chatsworth. Brian Watt/KPCC

Sunday marks two years since a Metrolink commuter train collided with a Union Pacific freight train in Chatsworth. The crash killed 25 people and injured 135. The deadliest crash in the 18 years since Metrolink trains have been running has led to a lot of changes at the commuter rail service. One of them is new Chief Executive Officer John Fenton.

On a ride from San Bernardino to Los Angeles, Fenton loved watching the cars poke along on the 10 Freeway as his train sped toward L.A. Fenton has worked for Metrolink for only six months. He was in Denver the day of the Chatsworth crash.

"When I saw the news come across, my heart sank," said Fenton, whose railroad career has stops at Union Pacific, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, even a general manager post at Canadian National Railway. Twice, he’s been in charge of safety.

"Being a professional railroader, everyone remembers where they were the day of Chatsworth. It was like September 11 - you don’t forget where you were and what you were doing."

Sixty-year-old Richard Myles of Moorpark would like to forget, but his body reminds him daily.

"I broke my neck in several pieces and crushed part of the bones in my neck," he explains at his kitchen table.

Myles had been in a Metrolink crash before – in Glendale in 2005. The former division manager of the City of Los Angeles’ trash collection services says after that, he rode in the last car only. But when he hopped on the northbound Metrolink train two years ago, the last car was full. He took a seat in the second car – behind the locomotive and car number one. Most of the passengers who died in the Chatsworth crash were riding car number one.

"Also I have nerve damage to my hands arms and shoulders, and that manifests itself as my hand is mostly numb," says Myles. The pain from his injuries and the pain medication keep Myles from working.

Metrolink CEO Fenton says out of all the horrible stories like Richard Myles’ came some positive changes for Metrolink. It ‘s the first railroad to install inward- and outward-facing cameras in locomotive cabs.

It’s replaced Connex, the the subcontractor that employed its engineers, with Amtrak It’s ordered 117 new train cars made with new crash energy management technology, and it’s first in line for an automated breaking system known as positive train control - or PTC.

"Those are all great things. I mean, PTC is going to take this to another level, Crash Energy Management cars will take this to another level. Technology can go so far, but it’s still about people." Fenton says.

So Fenton’s focused a lot on Metrolink’s people, trying to get them to take ownership of the safety of the trains. On the train out to San Bernardino, Britney Contreras didn’t seem worried about safety. The UCLA sophomore was reading “The Notebook”.

"I was a little hesitant at first to take the train after the accident because I am not a big public transportation rider," she explained. "But plane crashes happen and people still ride planes and still ride buses and it’s safer than walking down my street."

Metrolink CEO Fenton is also working with service crews to make the rail system more friendly to passengers like Contreras, and Metrolink employees like Richard Hudson can feel the difference.

"'Lackadaisical' was the word before he showed up," says Hudson at the San Bernardino station. A 14-year

Metrolink veteran, he supervises nine field representatives. They’ve taken water and snacks to passengers during long delays and helped arrange bus service or carpools during major service disruptions. Hudson’s paying attention to his new boss.

"Now he’s stressing that we need to communicate with the passengers, we need to provide them with what we call 'Nordstrom' care, customer service."

Metrolink now communicates delays to passengers on Twitter. Fenton says it’s approaching a 95 percent on-time rate, although the train we took ran 10 minutes late.

"I think Metrolink has to be a part of the solution to what’s going on in Southern California, whether it’s air quality, gridlock, financial issues," says Fenton "But until you get a service that people want to ride, they are not gonna take advantage of that."

Fenton's vision of the future includes express trains that speed commuters between Anaheim and Burbank – and special nighttime schedules for Dodgers or Angels fans. And maybe even lower fares to tempt new riders.

That’s what Metrolink boss John Fenton wants. What he needs is a train system that all passengers believe is safe.

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