Safety measures increased after crash

Posted on December 1, 2008 by Thi Dao, Assistant Editor

Following the Sept. 12 Metro­link rail accident in Chatsworth, Calif., the operation has taken steps to bolster its safety measures, including adding a crewmember in the lead cab and making equipment and track improvements. The accident, where a passenger train collided head-on with a Union Pacific 17-car freight train, killed 25 people and left 135 injured.

National Transportation Safety Board investigations show that the engineer had been sending and receiving text messages during his shift, the last one sent less than a second before the train crashed. This led Metrolink and state and federal government agencies to take actions that would ensure fewer distractions for rail employees.

Immediately after the crash, California authorities adopted an emergency order to restrict personal use of communication devices by rail employees in service. The Federal Railroad Administration’s Emergency Order No. 26 made this a national law, effective Oct. 27, 2008.

Metrolink is also using an additional crewmember in the front cab as a safety measure as well as a way to enforce the cell phone ban, emphasizing the areas not equipped with automatic train stop (ATS) technology and single-track lines.

The rail company has also made efforts to add a second engineer to their lines. The engineers come from their extra board — a small group called upon to rotate in whenever a front line engineer is unavailable.

“We have maximized the use of existing personnel and are able to cover roughly 50 percent of our current train service using that strategy. The rest is going to have to be covered through hiring,” said Francisco Oaxaca, Metrolink spokesman.

Further crew supervision includes inward-facing video cameras that will be installed in 15 new locomotives by October of next year. Metrolink is also seeking funding for installation of cameras on all new cab cars.

A Commuter Rail Safety Peer Review Panel has been authorized to review and make recommendations on system operations. The 60-day review is expected to conclude by December of this year. The panel will evaluate operating environment, policies, procedures, contracts and management.

Equipment and track improvements will also be made. In October, President Bush signed the Rail Safety Improvement Act, mandating the installation of positive train control (PTC), which includes GPS tracking and automatic stop, centralized dispatch, upgrading signals and communications, and digitally mapping the railroad. The Rail Safety Act will take effect by Oct. 31, 2015.

Metrolink plans to get a head start on PTC installation. “We have a commitment, right now, from the freight railroads to install the portion that sits outside the train along the tracks on the lines that we operate here in Southern California by 2012,” said Oaxaca. The rest of the PTC system, including the parts inside the train and upgrading the dispatch center, will be installed afterward.

Until then, Metrolink hopes to extend the older ATS systems to their tracks. “Our plan right now is to identify particular locations along our railroad where we feel that the ATS could be an additional safety enhancement,” Oaxacasaid. This technology would be used until it is replaced by PTC.

Although some initiatives have already been paid for, many others still require funding, which Metrolink hopes will be partly attained through voters. “There are a number of significant issues on the November ballot in California. Prop 1B and the High-Speed Rail Bond could provide significant funding for rail safety initiatives like ATS and, more importantly, the PTC efforts,” said Oaxaca. “We’re working on several fronts, both on the federal and state level, to identify more funding in other legislation that may be planned.”

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