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Metrolink pushing forward with system designed to prevent crashes

The system, which officials say would have prevented the '08 Chatsworth crash, is expected to be running next year. A bid in the House to delay a nationwide mandate could make the Southland a test lab.

February 11, 2012|By Dan Weikel and Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times
  • Metrolink Chief Executive John Fenton checks out so-called positive train control equipment aboard a test train in a Los Angeles railyard as a technician shines a flashlight on it.
Metrolink Chief Executive John Fenton checks out so-called positive train… (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)

More than three years after the deadly Metrolink crash in Chatsworth, the commuter railroad is forging ahead with the most sophisticated collision avoidance system in the country despite efforts in Congress to relax requirements to install the safety improvement nationwide.

Metrolink already has made substantial progress developing its $201-million positive train control system, which uses an array of electronic gear to monitor and, if necessary, take control of trains to prevent collisions and derailments.

The vast majority of track-side communication stations and radio antennas for the new system have been installed along the railroad's 512 miles of track. Other equipment has been added to a group of locomotives, and a sophisticated dispatching system is under development.

Involved in the project are Union Pacific and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co., which have spent years working on positive train control. Both companies operate freight trains on the same tracks as Metrolink, which serves six Southern California counties.

The entire system is expected to be operational next year, meaning that Metrolink would be one of the first passenger railroads in the nation to fully deploy a state-of-the-art train control system that marries global positioning technology to computers and digital radio communications.

It also means that Southern California could find itself serving for years as a groundbreaking and isolated safety test lab if Congress decides to postpone the deadline from 2015 to 2020 for installing the technology.

Federal lawmakers are being pressured by influential railroads and transportation organizations that say positive train control is very costly and tricky to install and remains largely unproven in daily operations.

Metrolink officials say they want to complete their system by mid-2013 regardless of any change in the national mandate, which covers 70,000 miles of track used by passenger trains and railroads that haul hazardous materials.

"I don't think the rollback is justified," said Richard Katz, chairman of the Metrolink Board of Directors. "This is the most important development in our lifetimes as far as rail safety is concerned. Every year we delay, more people are going to die that don't have to."

Congress set a Dec. 31, 2015, deadline for positive train control after a Metrolink train collided head-on with a Union Pacific freight train near the Chatsworth station in September 2008, killing 25 people and injuring more than 130.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which has recommended the use of the collision prevention technology since 1990, concluded that Metrolink's engineer was text messaging and failed to stop for a red signal. Positive train control's automated braking system would have prevented the crash and 20 other deadly and costly rail accidents nationwide in the last two decades, investigators said.

To help rebuild public confidence and counter a dismal safety record, Metrolink officials decided to accelerate the installation of the high-tech system in one of the nation's busiest rail centers.

"I'm confident Metrolink will get there," said John Fenton, the railroad's chief executive. "But when you look at where we are today, it's a massive project given the type of work force, the vendors, the technology issues and the possibility of transforming the industry. There are some real challenges. At this point, without a national strategy, I do have concerns."

Other passenger lines, freight railroads and transportation organizations contend that more time is needed because of the mandated system's complexity, the need for uniformity across the U.S. rail network and the high cost — an estimated $12 billion nationally, including $2 billion for commuter operations.

Some rail lines might not be able to afford the systems, which can cost hundreds of millions of dollars each, according to the Assn. of American Railroads and the American Public Transportation Assn., which represents 28 commuter lines.

In addition, railroads are concerned about the availability and reliability of required electronic equipment and a potential shortage of adequately trained installers and maintenance workers. A major impediment, most experts agree, is a lack of the radio frequencies needed for the system's extensive communications network.

The array of concerns has prompted some federal lawmakers to include the five-year delay in a Republican-drafted transportation bill expected to come before the House as early as this week. The proposed legislation would also allow railroads to develop less costly and complex safety systems along tracks that carry toxic materials.

Although the House bill would need to be reconciled with a very different Senate bill, the deadline change could make it into a final bill, given the bipartisan support it has received.

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