Metrolink’s Problems Go Beyond an Engineer and His Cell Phone

The NTSB "Recreates" the September 12 Crash in Chatsworth

Last week, Damien Goodmon penned a piece in CityWatch arguing that the focus on the actions of the conductor in the September 12 Chatsworth train crash is distracting the public from the larger issue of rail safety in the greater Los Angeles area.  Goodmon sites statistics showing that Metrolink trains are three times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than the busiest commuter railroad in the country, the Long Island Railroad.  He goes on to argue:

Dismissing the Chatsworth event as a “freak accident” distracts from
the hundreds of others that have occurred on our region’s tracks and
allows our elected leaders to continue, without appropriate criticism,
to translate our region’s desires for solutions to our traffic crisis
into policies of building rail quickly, cheaply and unsafely.  With
policies and decisions to operate commuter trains on single-track
segments with freight rail, and 225-ton light rail trains at street
level across major intersections right next to large urban schools and
churches there is plenty to criticize.

The catastrophic Metrolink accident should be a wake up call to our
region.  It should result in an independent top-to-bottom
no-holds-barred evaluation of the rail safety policies made by the
politicians who lead our transportation agencies.  The evaluation
should result in short-term (1-2 years) and long-term (20-30 year)
recommendations … mandates … to implement safety mitigation measures on
our rail lines, which must be prioritized among our transportation

In the Times this weekend, Steve Hymon delves in to how Metrolink functions as an agency.  The article is a pretty chilling read.  The underfunded agency is run by small-town political leaders who don’t have an expertise in rail or rail safety.  Despite their being no history of attacks on U.S. transit systems, Metrolink has focused on keeping their riders safe from terrorists instead of other safety concerns.

The underfunded agency receives almost half of its funding from transit fares, which is well above the national average and nearly twice the recovery ratio for Metro.  While there has been some discussion in other outlets that Metrolink has opposed federal regulations requiring the types of warning signals that might have prevented the crash, but perhaps that opposition has stemmed more from their inability to afford such systems than anything else?  After all, the state government took another billion from transit agencies to balance the state budget just last week.

Also under fire is Metrolink’s leadership.  The Metrolink Board has been vocally unhappy with the actions of the staff which has led to the agency’s spokesperson resigning and the CEO coming under fire for a general lack of leadership in the wake of the crash.  As Board Member Mike Antonovich, who also sits on the Metro Board and the County Board of Supervisors, told the Times:

"You can’t be AWOL in these situations," Antonovich said. "This was not
a tremor. It was an earthquake. They must be trained and able to
respond. Everyone needs to be on the same page."

As we learn more about Metrolink’s leadership and budget, it’s becoming clear that regardless of the actions of the engineer and his texting habits, there need to be other changes at Metrolink.  Some new blood and a dedicated funding pool, so that the agency has a steady flow of income besides farebox revenue, would be a good start.

Photo: Al Seib/Times

6 thoughts on Metrolink’s Problems Go Beyond an Engineer and His Cell Phone

  1. Up until now, it seems that rail saftey has been on the back burner. Hopefully, with articles such as this, the public will demand better accountability from our transit management.

    One thing to keep in mind: Rail transit in Los Angeles is relatively new. Having really been in place only since the mid 1990’s.

    All of the policys, procedures and operating knowledge is nothing compared to a provenance of 100 years or more in cities like New York or Chicago. Los Angeles’ core group of workers just haven’t been around metropolitan rail long enough to “know” when something feels unsafe or wrong. Sure, you can bring in managers from freigh train companies – but it’s not the same.

  2. Rail safety is somewhat of an issue to me, but I don’t believe it is a lot to worry about. Most fatalities stem from people being hit by trains. It really isn’t fair to hold back a transit system from flourishing because a certain agency hits more stupid pedestrians and motorists than any other.

    Of course PTC should have been installed, and it will probably come about after this crash. This is how the airline industry works. No one cared about oxygen in fuel tanks until TWA 800 blew up in midair, either burning or drowning its victims in the Atlantic ocean.

    We need to bring in managers from the SNCF to do it. They have been doing every kind of freight and passenger rail, even in urban areas, for decades- and they’ve done a damn good job of it except for its strikes.

  3. I agree 100% that we need more people with rail experience. I remember reading what the Metrolink CEO said about PTC and how it exists on the Northeast Corridor, and how that’s totally different because it’s a passenger only line. Well, I happen to live about a mile away from said corridor, and freight trains appear there quite regularly. Indeed, part of the motivation for the system was a horrible high speed collision between a passenger train and a freight locomotive that pulled out in front of it because both the engineer and conductor were stoned.

  4. Robert-I see that you have been convicted of assualting a Metrolink Conductor. Did you have to resign your union position or is assualting another uinion member part of your job description?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Boxer Reminds Metrolink: Train Crew Members Shouldn’t Ride Solo

The transportation spending bill passed by the Senate this week includes $50 million in rail safety grants sought in June by environment committee chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) — but the bill may not become law for months, and today Boxer told California’s Metrolink commuter rail that interim safety protections would have to stay in place. Flickr photo: ProKelly This […]

FRA Safety Regs Add Costs, Not Safety, to American Rail

The Federal Railroad Administration is an increasingly frequent target for Streetsblog Network members. Writers including Alon Levy at Pedestrian Observations and the mysterious “Drunk Engineer” who pens Systemic Failure have called out FRA safety regulations as irrational and out-of-date, adding unnecessary costs to rail operations and preventing the modernization of Amtrak and commuter rail systems. […]

A Day After Their TIGER Win, Freight Railroads Carve Out More Turf

The freight rail industry yesterday claimed the top three awards in the Obama administration’s competition for $1.5 billion in TIGER stimulus grants, with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood singling out train shippers for an online shout-out: (Chart: AAR) You know, although passengers and commuters have human faces, we need to remember that trade depends upon the […]

Oil-Laden Freight Trains Delaying Amtrak, Commuter Trains Across U.S.

Oil production is booming across North America, as new technologies make it possible to extract liquid crude oil from sources like the Bakken shale oil field in North Dakota and Montana, or Alberta’s tar sands. The ever-increasing volume of crude oil mined in remote Great Plains locations often finds its way to refineries via “rolling pipelines” – freight […]

Deadly Year for European Rail Still Safer Than the American Average

Does the recent train derailment in Spain, which killed 79 people, justify America’s onerous approach to regulating rail safety? Federal Railroad Administration safety rules are designed to maximize “crashworthiness,” making U.S. passenger trains heavier and more expensive that their counterparts in European, where the safety approach is based on crash avoidance. So what do we have to […]