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Years of use prove rail controls work

For decades, automatic braking has limited the damage in crashes. But Metrolink officials say it isn't perfected.

September 22, 2008|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

During the evening rush hour on March 25, a runaway freight car weighing 112 tons hurtled down the tracks toward a Massachusetts commuter train loaded with 300 passengers.

As the freight car closed in at 30 mph, the commuter train suddenly braked to a stop, not by any action of its engineer, but because of an automated system designed to sense another train on the tracks.

The freight car slammed into the commuter train's locomotive, and 150 passengers suffered minor injuries. But officials with the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority say the crash would have been much worse had the commuter line not been equipped with an automatic braking system -- a system that has been in place and improved upon for years.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 12 crash in Chatsworth that took the lives of at least 25 people and injured 135, Metrolink officials repeatedly have said that such controls have not yet been perfected to the point where they can be installed throughout Southern California's rail system, where 66% of the tracks are shared by freight and passenger trains.

But as the Massachusetts case indicates, control systems have been installed in several places around the country where they have worked effectively. Safety officials say that positive train controls, which are designed to stop a train automatically if an engineer goes through a red signal or if sensors detect another train on the tracks, could have prevented the Chatsworth crash or reduced its impact.

Though the cause of the accident is under investigation, preliminary findings suggest that the Metrolink engineer missed a stop signal and failed to wait on a side track for the freight train to pass.

Positive train controls have been installed on railroads for almost 90 years in the United States. They were first required by the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1920, when 49 railroads were ordered to install train stop systems on some passenger lines.

In 1937, Congress, reacting to a rash of passenger train wrecks, ordered railroads to install automatic train stop systems in high-risk corridors.

But because of the dramatic decline in train travel in the U.S., many of the systems were removed with the approval of the Interstate Commerce Commission, which became the Federal Railroad Administration in 1967.

"Positive train control is not a new concept, nor a new technology," said George Gavalla, the former head of the Federal Railroad Administration's safety office, where he worked from 1995 to 2004. "That accident would not have happened had they invested in a system that can detect a train going through a signal," he said, referring to Metrolink.

Francisco Oaxaca, a spokesman for Metrolink, said the only part of the agency's 388 miles of track that has automatic braking is a stretch in south Orange County that was equipped with the system by another railroad before Metrolink began operation in 1992. Oaxaca said Metrolink officials were not prepared Friday to say anything more about rail safety measures.

Positive train controls range in complexity from sensors and automatic braking systems to sophisticated designs that rely on Global Positioning System technology, computers and digital radio communications.

Cab signals, a system that has been used for decades on trains, are one of the simplest safety devices. Operated by electricity, a cab-mounted display tells engineers what a signal is in advance so they can prepare for it. The signals communicate with trains through wires in the track bed.

Another device that has long been available is automatic or positive train stop, a mechanical and electronic system that activates the brakes if a train proceeds through a stop signal. The brakes are set by a lever or bar in the tracks.

Amtrak and the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority have combined automatic train stop with cab signals and track sensors. More sophisticated systems employ Global Positioning System technology to monitor train locations and speeds; sensors and computers to gather and analyze data; remote control equipment for engines; and advanced digital radios to communicate with trains, signals and dispatchers.

The most complex systems, which have been under study for more than 20 years, can detect speed-limit violations, improperly aligned switches, unauthorized train movements and whether trains are on the wrong track or have missed signals.

Grady Cothen, a deputy associate administrator of safety at the railroad administration, said that in the last 40 years the railroad administration has been trying to preserve and improve the systems that exist scattered across the country.

Today, upgraded versions of the older systems can be found on commuter railroads, Amtrak routes and parts of freight lines around the U.S. Similar systems have been widely used for decades in Japan and Europe, where a uniform system is being developed across the continent that incorporates the latest technology.

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