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Panel Seeks Ban on 'Push' Trains

Legislators investigating a year-old Metrolink crash say rear locomotives on commuter lines put passengers at risk.

January 19, 2006|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

Assembly members who investigated last year's deadly Metrolink crash near Glendale recommended Wednesday that commuter railroads stop pushing trains from the rear with locomotives, a widespread practice that some experts fear leads to more severe accidents.

The committee, headed by Assembly Majority Leader Dario Frommer (D-Glendale), also called for improvements at railroad crossings statewide, legislative action to boost funding for rail-safety programs and a widespread public education effort.

If a ban on so-called push operations became effective, it would affect four commuter lines: the Altamont Commuter Express and Caltrain, both in Northern California, as well as the Coaster in San Diego County and Metrolink, which serves six Southland counties.

"There is no doubt in my mind that push operations are a killer and should be made illegal," Frommer said during a news conference near the site of the Jan. 26 crash that left 11 dead and 180 injured.

The proposals, Frommer said, are designed to help reverse a steady increase in train accidents in California, which has one of the worst rail safety records in the nation. The recommendations come from a special committee of eight Assembly members organized by Frommer after the Glendale tragedy.

In that crash, a train hit a sport utility vehicle that was on the tracks, triggering the derailment of two Metrolink trains.

The train that struck the SUV was being pushed from the rear with a locomotive.

In push mode, an engine is placed behind the last passenger car. In that configuration, the train is controlled from a cab car, a passenger coach at the front with an engineer's station.

Some rail-safety experts say push operations can leave passengers vulnerable because passenger cars are more likely to derail and sustain more damage in head-on collisions than heavier locomotives.

Since Metrolink began in 1992, it has had three other major crashes involving push operations, resulting in four deaths and 150 injuries. In contrast, the line has had two major crashes of trains pulled by locomotives; 25 people were hurt, and no one was killed.

Eliminating push operations, commuter rail officials say, would be costly and is unwarranted because there are already safety improvements planned for passenger cars, which include energy-absorbing materials that are designed to cushion the impact.

Metrolink plans to use the technology in 40 new cab cars that will be phased in as part of its coach replacement program.

"We don't accept the idea that cab cars are unsafe," said Denise Tyrrell, a Metrolink spokesperson. "They are as safe as they can possibly be made."

In recommending the ban, the committee cited Metrolink's crash history and a federal emergency order issued in 1996 after two accidents on the East Coast involving trains pushed by engines. Twelve people died and hundreds were hurt.

Cab car-related collisions "do present an increased risk of severe personal injury or death when compared with locomotive-hauled service," the federal order stated. However, rail operators cite a recent federal study that suggests there is only a slight difference in the risk of an accident between pulling and pushing a train with a locomotive.

Frommer's committee concluded that commuter lines could eliminate push operations by installing track and switch layouts that would allow trains to be turned around at the ends of lines. Dummy engines or weighted cars also could be placed at the front of trains to act as buffers in crashes. The so-called cabbage cars are used in Washington state.

Until more substantial steps can be taken, the panel said, passenger seating should be limited in the front rows of cab cars. Metrolink already bans passengers from the first 27 feet of those coaches.

Frommer called for a three-year phase-out of push operations -- a step, he contends, that Metrolink and other lines can afford.

He said that if they did not do it voluntarily, he would seek legislation.

"This is what I wanted. I'm amazed the committee came across as strong as it did," said Ann Ormiston, the widow of Tom Ormiston, a veteran Metrolink conductor who was killed in the crash near Glendale. "It's good to see that my husband's long-standing concerns are being addressed."

Commuter rail officials contend that turnaround tracks at the end of lines are expensive or impossible because land is limited or unavailable in urban areas. Also, turning trains around requires about 10 minutes and could take trains out of service hours each day, raising operational costs.

They say that cabbage cars -- old locomotives ballasted with concrete -- are not that easy to find in reasonable condition and would increase maintenance requirements.

"If pull operations are used exclusively, this could result in millions of dollars of additional operating costs, including equipment and personnel that would have to be funded," said Greg Hull, director of operations, safety and security for the industry's American Public Transit Assn.

Rail officials agreed, however, with the committee's recommendations to improve railroad crossings statewide, such as using better gates and barriers and building corridors that are sealed off from motor vehicles.

Since 1991, about 812 of the state's 11,000 grade crossings have been eliminated by various state and local safety programs. The committee report stated that because of funding restrictions, only about four grade separation projects can now be done each year.

"We are incredibly encouraged by Frommer's support for grade-crossing programs. We are 100% behind him on that," Tyrrell said.

"We need more than just strengthening passenger cars."

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