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TIMES SPECIAL REPORT

Metrolink system's toll: 244

The regional rail agency is criticized for paying too little attention to safety -- including dangerous crossings -- on tracks it owns and uses.

September 27, 2009|Doug Smith

Although Metrolink safety lapses drew national attention last year when 25 people were killed in a head-on collision with a freight train, many more have died from commuter trains hitting automobiles and pedestrians.

Over the 15 years leading up to the deadly crash in Chatsworth, accidents involving trains running on Metrolink's system killed 218 other people, according to a detailed examination of accident records by The Times. Through September 2008, the number killed on the Metrolink commuter rail system was 244. Hundreds more people sustained nonfatal injuries.

Critics say Metrolink leaders have not paid enough attention to safety and have done little to upgrade dangerous intersections where streets cross the tracks. In particular, the public railway has failed to adopt the sorts of safety systems and improvements developed and widely used by its sister agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Some of the clearest examples are in the San Fernando Valley, which includes two of Metrolink's most dangerous crossings -- at Buena Vista Street in Burbank and Sunland Boulevard in Sun Valley.

For the thousands of motorists who pass through it every day, the rail crossing at Buena Vista and San Fernando Boulevard can be a hair-raising passage. The intersection is a maze of sharp turns and confusing signals that require drivers to move with split-second timing.

Twice in recent years, that timing has gone fatally wrong just as a train was bearing down fast, leading to the deaths of motorists.

On Jan. 6, 2003, Jacek "Jack" Wysocki rolled his Ford truck into the path of a Metrolink train traveling 79 mph. The 63-year-old driver was killed along with one train passenger; two train cars derailed and flipped, injuring 20 other Metrolink riders.

Exactly three years later, 76-year-old Maureen Osborn was killed after turning in front of a Metrolink commuter going 75 mph. Osborn's car was dragged a third of a mile before the train could stop.

Both tragedies could have been predicted. Buena Vista and similar Metrolink intersections had all seen previous accidents and near-collisions.

Metrolink took no responsibility

They also could have been prevented. But if any Metrolink official saw trouble coming, records show no evidence of action. After each accident, leaders of the regional rail system took no responsibility, choosing instead to invoke a standard industry convention: They blamed the deaths on motorists who "tried to beat the train."

Even after a blistering 2003 critique of the crossing's design and signal system by the National Transportation Safety Board, nothing was done to correct Buena Vista's flaws. Facing no legal obligation to follow federal recommendations, Metrolink, Burbank authorities and the California Public Utilities Commission -- the state agency responsible for train safety -- made only minor refinements.

One expert says the history behind the Buena Vista-San Fernando crossing reveals a glaring flaw in the mind-set of Metrolink leaders: Because they have focused more on building ridership than on improving safety, even hazards that could have been eliminated or sharply reduced have been allowed to remain. Only after the horrific Chatsworth crash did Metrolink upgrade the status of its safety unit so that it reported directly to chief executive David R. Solow.

"I call it the culture of denial and deflection," said Najmedin Meshkati, a professor of engineering at USC whose studies of human factors in accidents have led him to become a vocal critic of Metrolink.

That culture also stands in stark contrast to what is practiced by the MTA, the largest of five rail agencies that contribute funds to Metrolink.

That agency, based only blocks from Metrolink's Los Angeles office, also had a record of numerous accidents and deaths after initiating its Blue Line light-rail service between downtown and Long Beach in 1990. Since then, the MTA's safety section has examined the causes and retrofitted many of the worst crossings with systems to prevent accidents. As a result, the Blue Line accident rate has dropped significantly.

Despite numerous requests by The Times, Metrolink did not allow any technical officials to be interviewed for this report or to answer written questions.

Richard Katz, an MTA board member who was appointed to the Metrolink board by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa after the Chatsworth crash, acknowledged that Metrolink hasn't "always maintained the vigilance that is necessary."

As an example, Katz said, Metrolink's "shoe box" record keeping is inadequate to analyze accident trends.

"I think that MTA has had a better consciousness of safety in the past than Metrolink has, even though Metrolink has tried," Katz said. "Our goal is to try to get safety at the same level at Metrolink as the MTA. I don't think we're there yet, but that's the place we're trying to get to. I think in the last year, there has been a remarkable turnaround, but it still has a long way to go."

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