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Technology can help avert tragedy

September 16, 2008

Re "Metrolink blames engineer," Sept. 14

It is almost inconceivable that Metrolink depended only on human response to a red light to keep two trains, hurtling toward each other at high speeds on a single track, from colliding.

Human beings are fallible. It is inevitable and predictable that some small part of the time human beings will fail to see a signal, or fail to obey it, for any number of reasons -- including tiredness, boredom, ill health, the effects of drugs or medication, or momentary distraction.

As your reporters have pointed out, human-independent fail-safe mechanisms are currently available to prevent these types of collisions. Hopefully this horrific tragedy will inspire Metrolink and other passenger railroad systems to install such fail-safe devices.

Even better would be to ensure that passenger trains are never even put on the same track as trains heading in the opposite direction.

Paul Sailer

Los Angeles

As a retired transportation engineering design manager, I have always felt it to be the height of folly to operate passenger trains and freight trains on the same track. But given that this is the current practice, it is even more irresponsible to allow the safety of passengers to depend on an operating engineer seeing and responding to a red light.

While the proximate responsibility here may be with the operating engineer, the ultimate responsibility lies with elected officials and sleeping federal regulators who have allowed a sledgehammer-and-spike-era "safety" system to continue to exist.

We are in the 21st century. We have developed sophisticated communication and control systems. We have systems that automatically can speak to an operating engineer should his train begin to enter a section of track unsafely. We have systems that can take over control of a train as it begins to violate a safety zone. We have systems, referred to as "dead man," which can take control of a train should the operator become incapacitated.

I recognize that the application of such technologies would be costly. But what is the assessed value of the lost lives, the multitude of injuries, the repair and replacement cost of ruined equipment and damaged right-of-way, the economic cost of temporarily-suspended passenger and freight service, and the adverse effect on rail passenger demand caused by just this one horrendous accident?

Wake up federal Department of Transportation! Wake up National Transportation Safety Board! Wake up congressmen, senators and regulators! You are not serving the safety needs of the traveling public.

Maurice A. Sulkin

Los Angeles

The horrific rail disaster of last week is the price we are paying for the failure to invest in mass transit infrastructure. Why can we have 12 lanes on the 405 but only a single track on a major mass transit commuter line?

We must postpone all highway construction until the safety of Metrolink is ensured.

Joel D. Joseph

Santa Monica

I ride Metrolink every workday. I believe it is an important and valuable resource for the region. After last Friday's terrible accident, I did not know what I would see Monday morning. Would I see half-empty trains, frightened passengers and poor service?

No -- everything was nearly normal. The train was full and the service was fine. Yes, we exchanged a few remarks of sadness, there was some gallows humor about not riding in the first car, and comments on the need for more safety. But all in all, the passengers showed a remarkable degree of resilience.

I don't know whether to attribute this calm to inner resolve or necessity. But we Americans often show in troubled times a strength of character that is extremely reassuring.

Oliver Cutshaw

La Habra

Re "Diverse lives, one tragic link," Sept. 14

I read the short piece remembering Ernest "Pete" Kish ... and I know why he was called Pete.

He was a close friend of my family's since he was 4 years old, and he renamed himself after my father, Peter Sykes.

We will miss him always.

Sylvia Sykes

Santa Barbara

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