LA Metrolink commitment to safety reform comes under scrutiny
- Published Monday, March 2, 2009, by the Los Angeles Times
Metrolink's commitment to safety reforms comes under scrutiny
As a federal hearing into the Chatsworth disaster is set to begin,
recent red-light signal violations have raised concerns.
By Rich Connell and Robert J. Lopez
Within weeks of a commuter rail disaster in Chatsworth last fall,
Metrolink engineers twice did the same thing that is suspected to
have led to the deadly head-on collision with a freight train: They
ran through red signal lights warning them to stop, records show.
Counting the Sept. 12 crash that killed 25 people and injured 135,
the recent red-light violations exceeded the number of stop-signal
mishaps reported over the previous two years, a Times review of
internal records found.
"We're very concerned," Metrolink board member Richard Katz said. "One
is too many. ... It was only one in Chatsworth, and 25 people died."
The incidents pose fresh questions about how seriously the five-
county rail agency is confronting safety issues just as the National
Transportation Safety Board gears up for a public hearing on
Metrolink's operations before the Chatsworth crash, the worst in
modern California railroad history.
The proceedings, at which subpoenaed witnesses will be questioned
under oath, begin Tuesday in Washington, D.C. The two-day session
will zero in on track-side signal operations, how the agency enforced
a ban against cellphone use by train operators, and federal and local
requirements that engineers and conductors confirm by radio that they
have seen signals.
The cluster of signal violations occurred during a time when
representatives for Metrolink conductors were raising safety concerns
with a top executive for Connex Railroad, the private firm that
provides crew members to the commuter agency, according to internal
records reviewed by The Times.
A spokeswoman for Connex said Sunday that the firm has among the
lowest number of red-light violations in the rail industry.
"Red light violations happen in the rail industry, and we take
them extremely seriously," spokeswoman Erica Swerdlow said. "We
continuously train and discipline our engineers appropriately."
Metrolink train crews have come under intense scrutiny and stepped-
up field testing since the Chatsworth catastrophe. Preliminary
investigative findings show that the engineer in that accident,
Robert M. Sanchez, had been text-messaging before he ran a red
light and slammed into a Union Pacific freight train on a section
of single shared track. Last week, The Times reported that text
messages obtained by investigators indicate that Sanchez had
sometimes also allowed teenage train enthusiasts to ride in his
cab, another violation of rail safety policies.
Recent safety reforms put in place by Metrolink -- including adding a
second conductor, in the cab -- were supposed to prevent the types of
safety breakdowns suspected of contributing to the Chatsworth crash.
Yet operation records obtained by The Times show that two more signal
violations occurred within weeks of the accident, even after some
reforms had been put into effect. By comparison, only two signal
violations were reported on the system in the more than 24 months
between July 2006 and September 2008, records show.
Running a red light is "unbelievably hazardous" because of the
potential for catastrophic accidents, said veteran passenger rail
engineer Ron Kaminkow. The risk is amplified for Metrolink, he said,
because it operates in urban areas and routinely shares sections of
track with freight trains.
The first signal incident after the Chatsworth crash took place on
Nov. 13, when a red light violation occurred on the Lancaster line.
The day after that violation, a union representative for Metrolink
conductors sent an e-mail about morale problems and safety concerns
to Ron Hartman, a senior vice president at Veolia Transportation.
Its subsidiary, Connex, provides engineers and conductors for the
"If you look at the sheer number of major incidents ... it is easy to
see there is a major problem," wrote Ray Garcia, an official with the
United Transportation Union. "I am seriously concerned that, unless
there is a change in the culture at Connex/Metrolink it is just a
matter of time before you have another tragedy."
Six days later, a Metrolink train ran a red light in Rialto and
sideswiped a freight train, injuring five passengers.
Garcia said in an interview that Hartman "never followed through"
after Garcia's e-mail.
Hartman disputed that, saying he and other managers are available to
Garcia "any time and any day to discuss any remaining concerns that
he has." Union members join in monthly safety meetings, he said in
an e-mail to The Times, and the union is aware of "our commitment to
safety and the positive actions we have taken and continue to take."
A more recent safety incident, which is under investigation, occurred
Feb. 13 on the Riverside line. In that case, an engineer apparently
did not slow down in a reduced-speed zone set up as part of a field
test by Union Pacific Railroad, which shares the track with Metrolink.
A large, bright yellow board was placed along the track, requiring
trains to slow to 10 mph and watch for an "emergency situation on the
track" such as flooding or critical repairs, said Zoe Richmond, a
Union Pacific spokeswoman. She declined to comment about Metrolink but
noted that the tests are randomly placed and engineers and dispatchers
may not be notified through normal channels. "You see that yellow
board and you know something's up, but you don't know what that issue
is," she said.
Violations of such speed restrictions can lead to suspension of an
engineer's license. Metrolink spokesman Francisco Oaxaca said the
exercise was part of "our enhanced joint testing program" in which
the railroads test each other's crews as they navigate different
territories. It hasn't yet been determined whether a violation
occurred in the Feb. 13 case, he added.
A communication problem between the freight railroad dispatcher and
Metrolink employees apparently led to a misunderstanding about what
the engineer was required to do, said Metrolink board Chairman Keith
Millhouse. It may be "a question of testing administration" and not
engineer error, he said.
Rigorous testing is being conducted to increase safety, and in
January alone Metrolink engineers were subjected to nearly 1,400
tests, officials said.
Millhouse said Metrolink is safe, but he noted that "a test doesn't
do any good if it's not administered properly."
If the most recent incident involves chiefly a communication problem,
that won't be "as bad as running a red light or not slowing down for
a yellow," Katz said.
"But it's still a problem."
[BATN: See also:
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Metrolink needs top-to-bottom safety improvements, report says
Sen. Feinstein questions Metrolink anti-collision safety report
Over-crewed LA Metrolink trains to become even slower
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Metrolink may add 2nd engineer as interim safety measure
Metrolink considering adding 2nd costly engineer to trains