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Metrolink First in Line to Get Safer Train Cars

March 24, 2006|Caitlin Liu | Times Staff Writer

Standing in front of railroad tracks near Glendale where a deadly Metrolink crash occurred just over a year ago, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta on Thursday announced new shock-absorbing technology that he said could protect passengers better in the future.

He said Metrolink would be the first rail agency to buy new cab cars incorporating the improvements, which were developed by federal researchers.

The new technology would turn "once-rigid train cars into giant shock absorbers ... so passengers feel less of the impact," Mineta said as he stood at a Costco parking lot next to where mangled trains and bloodied passengers once lay.

Eleven people died and nearly 200 others were injured Jan. 26, 2005, after a man who said he was trying to commit suicide drove his SUV onto the tracks just before dawn. A Metrolink train smashed into his vehicle, setting off a violent chain reaction that caused a commuter train coming from the opposite direction to crash and derail. One train also smashed into a freight train parked on adjacent tracks.

David Solow, Metrolink's chief executive, said the new technology probably wouldn't have helped much in the Glendale crash because of the unusual multiple collisions.

The vast majority of train crashes occur at rail crossings, with trains hitting automobiles or pedestrians, Solow said.

Some critics downplayed the significance of the new shock-absorbing technology, saying that they believe having trains pulled by a locomotive -- rather than pushed from behind, with a lighter cab car in front -- would do more to protect passengers.

Like other commuter rail systems across the country, Metrolink uses a push-pull configuration: cars are sometimes pushed and other times pulled by locomotives so that trains do not have to be turned around at the end of the line.

Officials say that their accident data show such trains are as safe as others, but critics have charged that accidents involving pushed trains are more serious because the lighter passenger cabs in front can be crushed and derailed more easily.

"Today's announcement by Metrolink and the Department of Transportation appears to be a smokescreen to divert criticism of the push-pull configuration," said state Assemblyman Dario Frommer (D-Glendale), chairman of the Assembly Special Committee on Rail Safety, who has recommended that California transit authorities cease operating such trains within the next three years. "They cannot change the simple fact that push-pull is inherently more dangerous to passengers than other modes of commuter rail operation," Frommer said.

John Phipps, who was injured in last year's crash, said he believes Metrolink is trying to cut corners in enhancing rail safety.

"I'd rather see them turn the trains around and pull them, rather than just put shock absorbers on them," said Phipps, of La Mirada. He became famous last year after he was identified as the man who scrawled a message in blood on a window of one of the mangled trains expressing love for his family.

Phipps is among the passengers and relatives of crash victims who together have filed 132 claims and 30 lawsuits against Metrolink. "I'd feel safer if there was an engine in front of a train," he said in an interview Thursday.

Some rail advocates say that reconfiguring commuter rail systems to ensure that trains are always pulled would waste money.

"Passenger trains are immensely safe," said Alan C. Miller, executive director of Train Riders Assn. of California, a rider advocacy group that applauds the federal efforts. "What people miss is the huge mass of daily accidents on the highways, most of which don't make the headlines but together are far worse than the Glendale accident ever was."

Miller said he fears that "so much money will be put into alleviating a perceived safety hazard" that isn't really one that passenger rail service won't be adequately funded. Then more people will be driving, which is more dangerous than riding trains, he said.

Federal officials said the new "crash energy management" system would build crumple zones into passenger compartments to absorb the shock of a crash and redistribute force away from passengers. Researchers also have come up with a new design for couplers that make train cars less likely to derail or jackknife during a crash, officials said.

Mineta said he was sold on the new technology after he and Solow watched a test crash in the Colorado desert Thursday morning.

His office released a seven-minute video showing one test involving a regular train, pushed by a locomotive, heading toward a parked train at 36 mph. The ensuing crash caused the train to leap the tracks as metal flew everywhere. By contrast, in a second test, a train equipped with the shock-absorbing system stayed on the tracks after a crash at the same speed.

The specially equipped cab car remained intact, and dummy passengers remained in their seats.

The crash of the regular train crushed 20 feet of the passenger area, destroying 10 rows of seats, officials said. Only three feet of the special car was crushed.

"Unfortunately, no matter how much we do to make things safer ... we know that tragedy can still happen ... and nowhere was this more painful than right here in Glendale, where the unthinkable happened," Mineta said. "The bitter memory of Glendale shows that our work is never finished."

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Times staff writer Dan Weikel contributed to this report.

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