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As Rail Traffic Rises, Crash Risk Increases

Prevention: Orange County's system remains low-tech, relying mostly on human judgment. Satellite network more fail-safe, official says.


Rail lines in Orange County have grown increasingly crowded in recent years with both freight and passenger trains--narrowing the margin of error in a system still heavily reliant on human judgment.

Metrolink service to the county began eight years ago, with a dozen trains a day now passing the site of Tuesday's crash with a Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight train. The passenger trains must compete for space with up to 60 trains a day operated by Burlington Northern, which has increased operations in the area 96% since 1988.

This crowding of the rail space will provide the backdrop as National Transportation Safety Board investigators study a variety of possible factors in Tuesday's crash: the performance of the locomotive engineers, the functioning of the signal systems and the operation of the dispatching system that determines which train is supposed to be on which track.

Tuesday's accident was at a Burlington Northern "control point" east of the Anaheim Canyon station. The control point allows trains heading in opposite directions to avoid each other by switching one of them onto a parallel passing track, said Al Nerkowski, local chairman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers Local 662.

The trains are supposed to stop before the control point and wait for a Burlington Northern dispatcher operating the rail switches to order one of them onto the other track.

"There's millions of things that could have caused this to happen," Nerkowski said, "but it looks like one of the trains didn't stop."

About 40% of Metrolink's 416-mile network--stretching across Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, Ventura and San Bernardino counties--is run on rails controlled by freight railroads, including the Burlington Northern and Union Pacific.

On stretches operated by the cargo railroads, the freight lines also handle the dispatching. When the trains switch to Metrolink track, the dispatching is done by Metrolink employees at a center in Pomona.

A 1999 collision, also between Metrolink and Burlington Northern trains, occurred on another stretch of Orange County track not far from Tuesday's crash. Unlike Tuesday's accident, that crash occurred on track controlled and dispatched by Metrolink, according to Metrolink spokesman Francisco Oaxaca.

The issue of freight and passenger trains sharing track has been a significant concern of Metrolink operators, but mainly because the passenger trains are frequently delayed, waiting for the bigger freight trains to pass.

That worry has focused on the Riverside-to-downtown Los Angeles route, where Metrolink officials claim Union Pacific has not been dispatching its trains properly. Another meeting in that dispute is scheduled Friday.

Despite Tuesday's accident and a fatal rail crash last week in Florida, trains are an extremely safe way to travel.

Rail accidents continue to diminish and the number of deaths and injuries from those accidents is relatively low. Since 1995, an average of seven people have died each year on passenger trains nationwide, compared with more than 40,000 a year who die in motor vehicle crashes.

"Overall, rail is very safe," said Tom Rubin, an Oakland-based transportation consultant. "It's certainly safer than driving on a freeway."

However, Wendell Cox of the Amtrak Reform Council said that freight and passenger trains sharing tracks causes him concern, despite the statistics.

"We need to take a serious look at separating them as much as possible," Cox said. "Imagine driving down the freeway full-speed and having to constantly pull over because someone is slowing or stopping, or suddenly driving in the opposite direction. That's what it's like for trains in the United States."

Federal transportation officials have also been studying high-tech collision avoidance systems.

Allan Rutter, head of the Federal Railroad Administration, said in a March 27 letter to the National Transportation Safety Board that the cost of a system now under study "would financially overwhelm the passenger railroads, especially at this time when [Amtrak's] future is unclear."

Transportation Department officials estimate the cost of a system covering all passenger lines and key freight lines throughout the country at about $3 billion.

Devising a technology to prevent railroad crashes remains a top priority for the safety board, which first recommended it in 1987. Tuesday's fatal collision is likely to result in renewed urgency for such a high-tech solution.

Government and industry officials said technology widely used in aviation and trucking can be adapted to railroads. The concept is known as "positive train separation," also called "positive train control."

The system would use the global positioning satellite network to keep tabs on the location, direction and speed of locomotives. The engines would have to be equipped with transponders that continually signal their position.

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