"These agreements do not give Metrolink the power to obligate the freight railroads to install any type of train control system. They also call for Metrolink to pay for any installation that is requested of the freight railroads which would likely entail equipping hundreds if not thousands of freight-owned locomotives."
Metrolink, which transports about 48,000 passengers on weekdays, says that it meets or exceeds federal minimum safety standards.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Metrolink's contracts with freight lines are not good enough reasons to operate without a collision avoidance system.
After the Chatsworth crash, she got so angry on the Senate floor that she called the lack of such a system "criminal negligence."
She said of Metrolink in an interview: "They have to take very aggressive action. . . . If they have to renegotiate a contract, they should renegotiate a contract.
"Safety has to come first," Feinstein said. "I don't believe it has. I believe cost has."
After the Chatsworth crash, Feinstein and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) successfully pushed through Congress a rail safety bill requiring railroads to install a more advanced train control system by 2015.
Elsmore, the former rail safety chief of the state utilities commission, disputed Metrolink's contention that it was powerless to address the problem without cooperation from freight lines.
Metrolink could have asked federal regulators for permission to install a system on its own, he said. That would have been a departure from federal rules that normally require freights and passenger trains on a given rail system to use the same safety equipment.
In fact, since the Chatsworth crash it has asked for such a departure, but only to install a $1.5-million antiquated version that would not have avoided that collision.
The move seems emblematic of Metrolink management's reluctance to take bold steps.
Its leadership has been "driven solely by near-term, low-cost solutions as opposed to strategic or long-range solutions," said Mike McGinley, who retired as Metrolink's director of engineering and construction in 2006.
Metrolink operates as a "perpetual beggar," said Tyrrell, the agency's former spokeswoman.
From its start, Metrolink was an obscure agency controlled by the transportation commissions of Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside and Ventura counties.
Its mission was to operate as inexpensively as possible. The system gets about half its revenue in passenger fares and the other half from the governments of the five counties it serves. Its overall budget this year is $159 million.
The freight railroads it shares tracks with -- Union Pacific and Burlington Northern -- are, by contrast, multibillion-dollar operations that dominate railroading in the West.
Charles V. Smith, a former Orange County supervisor who was a Metrolink board member from 1993 to 2004, said the disparity became a problem when freight dispatchers repeatedly delayed Metrolink's trains. Metrolink was considered such a pipsqueak by one freight rail that its senior executives would not even return telephone calls from the transit line's leaders, Smith recalled.
Smith said he had to travel to Washington to enlist the help of an Orange County businessman he knew, Gus Owen, who was then a federal rail regulator.
Owen got through to a senior freight executive by telephone and bellowed, "Talk to them," Smith recalled.
Owen confirmed Smith's account and said he set up a meeting at which senior executives of Metrolink met for the first time since operations began with senior officials of Union Pacific and Burlington Northern. Metrolink had by then been operating for three or four years, Owen said.
The regulatory will of federal officials -- the Interstate Commerce Commission and its successor, the Federal Railroad Administration -- seems to have ebbed and flowed in relation to the frequency of deadly accidents.
In the early 20th century, regulators grew alarmed at the number of passenger deaths in collisions.
The Interstate Commerce Commission ordered many railroads to install either an automatic train control system that would stop a locomotive before it ran a signal, or a less sophisticated "automatic train stop" that would sound a warning that an engineer could override.
Rail lines that put in those devices saw collisions decline.
But the rail industry as a whole resisted, arguing that its money could be better spent, and the commission ultimately backed off.
Two decades later, when a high-speed crash near Chicago killed 45 people, commissioners ordered that railroads wanting to operate at more than 79 mph would have to install automatic braking systems.
Restrictions were eased again in the late 1950s and 1960s, as passenger rail travel waned. Some railroads won permission to remove automatic braking systems, saying that they were too expensive to maintain. A recent resurgence of passenger travel on commuter lines such as Metrolink has not brought them back.