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Federal Officials Blame Signals in Fatal Metrolink Derailment

The NTSB chides Burbank and the state in its findings on a Jan. 6 crash in which two died.

December 03, 2003|Caitlin Liu | Times Staff Writer

A fiery crash that derailed a Metrolink train, killed two people and injured more than 30 others in Burbank earlier this year was caused by confusing traffic signals that misled a truck driver into making a fatal turn onto the rail crossing, federal investigators said Tuesday.

In its findings, the National Transportation Safety Board also called on California to prohibit flashing red traffic signals at rail crossings statewide -- a practice currently permitted under the law at thousands of crossings -- and instead let the signals remain a "steady red" when a train is approaching.

"Use of the all-red-flash mode for traffic signals at a railroad grade crossing ... has ambiguous meaning, can be confusing to motorists and, as a result, creates unnecessary risk to life and property," a unanimous five-member board concluded Tuesday at a hearing broadcast live over the Internet from Washington, D.C.

In California as well as other states, flashing red lights also act as a stop sign, telling drivers to stop, then proceed with caution. "There wouldn't have been an accident if [the driver] had a solid red," NTSB Chairwoman Ellen Engleman said.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday December 05, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 60 words Type of Material: Correction
Metrolink crash -- An article in Wednesday's California section about the federal investigation into a fatal Jan. 6 Metrolink crash said the coroner's office found that the driver of a truck struck by the train had a blood-alcohol level of 0.09%. In fact, the test that found 0.09% alcohol was done on truck driver Jacek Wysocki's tissue, not his blood.

The panel also chided the city of Burbank for being unaware of national guidelines on rail crossing signals and recommended that the municipality install more prominent barriers to better guide motorists turning from San Fernando Boulevard onto the Buena Vista Street crossing, where the accident occurred.

Burbank officials, who earlier had proclaimed that the crossing was state of the art and safe, criticized the board's findings.

"I just think it's bizarre," Mayor Stacey Murphy said. The traffic barrier was down, she added, when the driver drove into the train's path.

But officials at the California Department of Transportation -- which publishes a traffic manual of required practices by municipal governments statewide -- said the federal report will prompt an internal review of the guidelines on warning devices at rail crossings, which currently include flashing red signals as an option.

"If we can improve traffic safety, we'll obviously take those steps," Caltrans spokesman Dennis Trujillo said.

On the morning of Jan. 6, 59 passengers and two crew members aboard Metrolink's train 210 were traveling through Burbank when Jacek Wysocki, a 63-year-old delivery-truck driver, steered his stake-bed truck into their path.

Wysocki did not appear to be trying to beat the train, investigators said. Witnesses told police they saw the driver stop his Ford F-550 truck for a red light at San Fernando Boulevard. But when the red left-turn arrow began to flash -- signaling the approaching train -- witnesses saw him roll into the intersection and turn left onto Buena Vista over the tracks.

The crash caused the truck to burst into flames and toppled the first two cars of the train, tossing passengers out of their seats and shattering windows. Wysocki died instantly. Two weeks later, train passenger Grace Midgley Kirkness, 76, died from her injuries.

After the crash, Burbank and Metrolink officials said the intersection was safe, and blamed Wysocki for causing the accident. The coroner's office found that Wysocki had a blood-alcohol level of 0.09%, and Burbank police concluded that the driver violated traffic laws by disregarding warning lights and driving in front of a train while the crossing gates were down.

Burbank and Metrolink officials would not comment Tuesday on whether they still believe the Buena Vista crossing is safe. Passengers have sued the city and the transit agency over the crash. Metrolink, in turn, has sued Wysocki's employers to recover damages to the train.

Rail safety experts said it is common for authorities to blame the driver for a train crash, even when other factors might have confused the motorist.

"This, to me, is a design-induced error," said USC engineering professor Najmedin Meshkati. "I'm very, very impressed by the NTSB. They looked at the root cause of the accident."

Federal investigators said they could not determine whether Wysocki was alcohol-impaired. But Wysocki's daughter-in-law, Iwona Wysocki, said she knew him to be a good driver, and said the findings would help clear his name.

"This intersection is asking for trouble," she said, adding that she hoped officials would "make it safer in the future."

Although more than 3,000 rail-crossing accidents occur every year, the NTSB investigates only about a dozen and holds public hearings on fewer than that. A hearing was held on the Burbank accident because it involved complicated issues that had implications for rail safety nationwide, Engleman said.

Federal authorities said they did not know how many states other than California use flashing red traffic signals at rail crossings. In California, about half of the state's 7,847 public rail crossings are equipped with such warning devices as gates, bells and flashing signals, the Federal Railroad Administration said.

Reports and guidelines by the federal government as well as professional groups, issued since 1996, discourage flashing red traffic lights at rail crossings because they are unsafe and confusing, investigators said. They add that such information "can be difficult to find."

Burbank employees told investigators that they were unfamiliar with the national safety guidelines.

"Had the city ... been aware of information available for redesigning and reconstructing intersections near grade crossings, the likelihood of this accident occurring would have been reduced and safety at the site would have improved significantly," the NTSB concluded.

Times staff writer Patricia Ward Biederman contributed to this report.

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