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California and the West

Failure of New System Disrupts Rail Traffic

Travel: Break in fiber-optic cable at dispatch center in San Bernardino leaves hundreds stranded for hours, from San Diego to Sacramento.


Rail traffic throughout much of California squealed to a halt for nearly three hours Thursday when a new, fiber-optic dispatch system in San Bernardino failed.

Hundreds of Southern California commuters were among those delayed by the disruption, which primarily affected freight traffic but also stopped service on two major Amtrak routes and two Metrolink commuter lines.

"I hope I don't get in trouble for being late," fretted Robert Albee, 26, a Navy employee who found himself killing time at Union Station in Los Angeles, waiting for his train to San Diego.

The outage began at 2 p.m. and lasted until 4:40 p.m., according to Lena Kent, a spokeswoman for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway. She said a fiber-optic telephone cable apparently had been cut, causing signals to fail. There no was indication that it was done intentionally.

Signals along tracks tell train conductors when to stop, slow down or continue. Kent compared the outage, affecting about 760 miles of track, with the failure of a major air traffic control tower. Put another way, she said, "It would be like all of your traffic signals going out."

Burlington Northern owns most of the tracks affected by the outage, which extended far into Northern California, Kent said. Union Pacific also experienced some disruptions in freight service, all in Southern California, according to spokesman Mike Furtney.

The two railroad companies have operated a joint dispatch center in San Bernardino since May 1999.

In all, at least 92 freight and passenger trains were brought to a standstill, Kent said.

Among them were five trains scheduled to run on two Metrolink commuter lines, one from Los Angeles to Oceanside, the other from Irvine to San Bernardino. In addition, the outage stopped an undetermined number of Amtrak trains in two major corridors, one between San Diego and San Luis Obispo, one between Sacramento and Bakersfield.

Among those inconvenienced were Stephanie Knight of Placentia and her 3-year-old son, Dorian. Knight said they arrived at the Fullerton station a half-hour before a 2:30 p.m. train was scheduled to leave for San Diego.

Three hours later, she turned in her tickets.

"We're really disappointed because this was going to be his first train ride," Knight said. "He just wanted to see the trains."

Sam Daverson couldn't leave; he was picking up his wife, who was stranded somewhere on the line between Oceanside and Fullerton.

"It seems like this is always happening, trains breaking down and being late," he said. "I've waited eight hours before for trains. . . . They must be able to do something about it."

Not everyone was upset by the delay. Randy Mosten, a Boeing engineer, commutes by Metrolink from his home in Corona to his job in Anaheim. He arrived at the West Corona station, in Riverside County, about 45 minutes later than usual Thursday, on a train with about 50 other Boeing employees.

"Most of the people on the train are pretty good-natured and good-humored, so they kind of took it in stride," he said.

And, in Orange County, Reed Novisoff and his sons, Paul, 8, and Benjamin, 6, seemed happy about getting to spend more time together.

The father and sons, who live in Rossmoor, had taken a morning train to Union Station in Los Angeles and walked around Olvera Street before heading back to Fullerton, where they had started. The return trip took about 2 1/2 hours longer than they planned.

Novisoff said the train's engineer made regular announcements about the problem, and few riders complained.

"It wasn't bad, and everyone was nice," he said. "The only bad thing to come out of this is that instead of arriving in early afternoon, we have to deal with rush hour traffic."

Claudia Keith, a Metrolink spokeswoman, couldn't say how many passengers were delayed, but she said the afternoon commute on both lines usually involves about 5,600 people. Metrolink was arranging for buses to carry commuters when the signal problem was fixed, she said.

No delays were expected during the morning commute today, Keith added.

Amtrak spokeswoman Jennifer McMahon also didn't know how many of the company's passengers were delayed. But she said the Pacific Surfliner corridor, which runs between San Diego and San Luis Obispo, has 11 daily round trips. The San Joaquin line has five daily round trips.

McMahon said Amtrak officials, who have long been criticized for passenger delays, did not receive any telephone complaints Thursday.

"We know this presented an inconvenience and that it's frustrating for passengers," she said. "We made refreshments available for people to make the delay as pleasant as possible. People make trips to get to their final destination--we know that--but there wasn't much we could do until the signals were restored."

McMahon said Amtrak officials had been planning to move passengers onto buses, but then service was restored.

The signal problems did not cause problems for commuters in the San Francisco Bay Area, even though some routes run on Union Pacific tracks.

"No nightmares happened here," said Janet McGovern, a spokeswoman for Caltrain, which runs 68 trains each weekday between San Francisco and the southern peninsula.

"Only eight of those trains run on tracks owned by Union Pacific," she said, "and none of those, thankfully, experienced any delays."


Times staff writers and correspondents Vince DiCazio, Jessica Garrison, John Glionna, Scott Gold, Mitchell Landsberg, Tariq Malik and Joe Mathews contributed to this report.

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