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Another red-light probe for Metrolink

Officials say an engineer allegedly failed to stop for a red light on the San Bernardino line last week. It is the fourth alleged violation since last year's deadly crash in Chatsworth.

December 02, 2009|By Rich Connell
  • A Metrolink train runs east of Union Station near the site of an incident last week in which another Metrolink train passed a red light. It was the fourth alleged red-light violation by a Metrolink train since the deadly Sept. 12, 2008, crash in Chatsworth.
A Metrolink train runs east of Union Station near the site of an incident… (Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles…)

Metrolink is investigating a new safety breach on the regional commuter line involving an engineer who allegedly failed to stop at a red signal last week as another train approached.

The incident, which also is being reviewed by federal regulators, is the fourth alleged red-light violation since the Sept. 12, 2008, crash in Chatsworth that killed 25. Investigators have attributed that crash to an engineer running a red light.

The most recent incident occurred on the San Bernardino line east of Union Station near downtown Los Angeles. The engineer recognized the problem, declared an emergency and stopped his train before it passed through a switch that would have put it in the path of an oncoming commuter train, officials said.

Some Metrolink board members are voicing exasperation that another potentially serious violation of a basic safety rule appears to have occurred, despite intensive reform efforts since the Chatsworth crash.

"This is simply inexcusable," said board Chairman Keith Millhouse, a Moorpark council member and Metrolink rider. "I'm just extremely upset. . . . These engineers are going to get weeded out if they are not going to do their job."

"There is no acceptable number of red-light violations," board member Richard Katz said.

Some board members say that red-light violations may be impossible to completely eliminate as long as people maintain all control of the trains. But they too are calling for a deeper examination of the problem and strong discipline of engineers who run red lights.

"There's got to be a root cause to this," said board member Art Brown, an Orange County representative. "There's just too many. We've got to dig down and find out exactly what's going on."

Brown and others said the latest incident underscores a need for a high-tech collision-avoidance system in Southern California, where freight and commuter trains share hundreds of miles of track.

The cause of last week's safety lapse, which delayed trains on the San Bernardino line for more than two hours, is still being sorted out. But there were no initial indications of a mechanical problem, board members said. The unidentified engineer has been removed from service pending completion of the probe.

The train that passed the red light was outbound from Union Station carrying passengers. It was not immediately clear if the inbound train had riders.

Metrolink staff declined to provide details of the incident, citing the investigation. But U.S. regulators also are looking into the incident, said Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Warren Flatau.

The current probe will be one of the first to incorporate footage from just-installed video cameras that are trained on engineers.

Officials have been seeking to eliminate the potentially tragic safety violations with the new video cameras, extra engineers assigned as lookouts on key trains and stepped-up random field testing. (The train that passed the red light did not have an extra engineer in the cab, officials said.)

The engineers' union is suing Metrolink to shut down the surveillance cameras, contending that they violate members' privacy rights.

A union spokesman said he was not familiar with the details of last week's incident. But he said the cameras may or may not be of great use in this case.

The incident might have involved "just a judgment error" on required stopping distance -- something that can be addressed with additional training, said Tim Smith, a representative of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.

Still, the incident appears to have stiffened the resolve of board members to keep the cameras.

"It's going to be fantastic," Brown said, "to be able to see exactly what he was doing."

Millhouse added: "I think the union needs to be less concerned about cameras and more concerned about every single person being focused on their job -- and doing their job."

He said that Connex Railroad, which provides Metrolink train crews under contract, has frontline responsibility for supervising engineers. "They need to be vigorously out there ensuring this doesn't happen," Millhouse said.

A Connex spokeswoman said red-light violations are taken very seriously. "We are continually looking at them, from a 360-degree view, to eradicate them," Erica Swerdlow said.

In the Chatsworth case, federal investigators' preliminary findings indicate that a Metrolink engineer who had been text messaging ran a red light just before plowing into a Union Pacific freight train. A final report on the causes of the crash is still pending.

News of the latest problem, coupled with a pending proposal to increase Metrolink fares and/or reduce service, have added to rider worries.

"I'm concerned," said Rita Yussoupova, who rides the system from Orange County to the San Fernando Valley and was on board last month when a train hit a pickup truck.

"They shouldn't be passing red lights," she said. "They should notice them. That's what they are paid to do."

rich.connell@latimes.com

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