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Metrolink to consider safety gear

The agency's chief executive cautions that there are obstacles to installing automatic braking devices.

September 26, 2008|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

In his most extensive public statement since the deadly Chatsworth train crash, Metrolink Chief Executive David R. Solow said Thursday that his agency would consider immediately installing devices that could halt or slow trains when a collision was imminent.

However, cautioning that there were potential obstacles to adding the equipment, he provided no assurance that the installation would be done. For the first time, he also revealed that Metrolink locomotives already have the ability to read stop signals that could be sent from tracks lined with such an automatic braking system.

Solow's remarks came as political leaders continued to press him and Metrolink's part-time board to swiftly embrace safety reforms and prove they can effectively guide a complex regional rail line that carries 48,000 commuters each weekday.

Speaking before the board of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority -- Metrolink's largest local backer -- Solow said he wasn't sure the Sept. 12 head-on collision between a Metrolink train and a Union Pacific freight train could have been avoided by the most readily available device, known as automatic train stop.

Twenty-five people died and 135 were injured in the crash, which has brought action by state regulators and helped propel a groundbreaking national rail safety bill pending in the Senate. Federal investigators say they cannot yet explain why the Metrolink engineer failed to stop at a light warning that another train was approaching on the same track.

Solow indicated that the automatic train stop system installed on Metrolink engines -- the agency has 38 locomotives -- has not been used across all 388 miles of track because the equipment that makes it work is in place only along a stretch in south Orange County.

At best, Solow said the equipment, which he said dates to the 1940s, could slow trains or perhaps halt them when engineers do not stop at red signals. "In certain instances, [the train stop devices] would slow down the train, and that's better than not slowing down the train," he said.

In the two weeks since the accident, Solow has said little publicly, instead deferring comments to members of the Metrolink board. Of the five counties that fund Metrolink, the MTA provides the lion's share, and its board is chaired by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

In the wake of the crash, Villaraigosa and several other MTA board members have been publicly pushing Metrolink to expand the use of automatic braking devices, put two engineers in each locomotive and add a video camera to locomotives to monitor the crews.

Villaraigosa questioned Solow on Thursday about anti-collision technology. Solow said Metrolink operates in some of the most congested train corridors in the nation, and for that reason, the agency is hoping to one day equip its trains with a more advanced system that could stop any train traveling on any track in the region.

A safety bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday requires railroads to put the most sophisticated system -- called positive train control -- in place by 2015.

Members of the MTA board said they expected Metrolink to move sooner to get an emergency stopping system in place on at least some routes.

The MTA board voted 9 to 0 to issue a series of safety directives to Metrolink. The MTA also said it would try to find $5 million to use toward securing an automatic train stop system for Metrolink while seeking $97 million in rail safety money that may be available from the state.

In addition, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill on Thursday that would allow voters in Los Angeles County to consider a half-cent sales tax increase to pay for more mass transit and road improvements. Metrolink could receive as much as $1.2 billion over the 30-year life of the tax hike.

To expand the existing automatic braking system, Metrolink would need permission from the Federal Railroad Administration. In his testimony, Solow indicated that railroad agency chief Joseph Boardman had told him the agency would give its approval.

Another problem is that about a third of Metrolink's routes -- totaling more than 100 miles of track -- are on tracks owned by freight lines.

"We have at this point no way to obligate the freight railroads to do anything," said Metrolink spokesman Francisco Oaxaca. (The federal safety law, however, would eventually require all freight trains to have positive train control systems if they carry hazardous materials.)

Also on Thursday, California Public Utilities Commission President Michael Peevey made "an urgent request" for the Federal Railroad Administration to issue rules requiring automatic train stopping devices on all California tracks shared by freight and commuter trains.

The proposal to put two engineers in each cab was not discussed Thursday, but could also prove troublesome for Metrolink. "There isn't in the industry this pool of engineers looking for work," Oaxaca said.

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