Metrolink train wreck: A rush to judgment, again
Published Sep 18, 2008 9:50 PM
Just 19 hours after 25 people were killed in the Sept. 12 train wreck outside
Los Angeles, the dead engineer was blamed for it.
Metrolink commuter rail spokesperson Denise Tyrrell announced that Train No.
111’s deceased engineer, Robert Sanchez, caused the wreck by passing a
Even the Republican Los Angeles County Supervisor and Metrolink board member
Don Knabe called this “a rush to judgment.” National Transportation
Safety Board reps also said it was too early to cast guilt. The Safety
Board’s investigation will take months to complete.
Tyrrell—who had been carrying out Metrolink’s orders—was
forced to resign on Sept. 15.
Many years ago a co-worker in an Amtrak signal tower told me that when
there’s a wreck, the aim was to “blame the dead man.” (Or
“dead woman.”) The spouse would still get benefits while the
carrier would be let off the hook.
Metrolink claims its computer showed Train No. 111 going by a stop signal right
into an oncoming Union Pacific freight train. (The three Union Pacific crew
members were injured but survived.) But the actual signal indication on the
tracks could have been different.
Richard Sanchez controlled the throttle for 12 years on Los Angeles commuter
trains. “He was known as one of the better engineers for
Metrolink,” said Tim Smith, California chairman of the Brotherhood of
Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. “He has been proactive about calling
attention to things.” (New York Times, Sept. 14)
KCBS-TV spread an unproven rumor that Sanchez had sent a text message to
teenaged rail fans just before the crash. Television camera trucks have camped
outside the home of Sanchez’s grieving family.
Issues behind tragedy
Firefighters and other rescuers were sickened by the carnage. The scene of the
wreck looked like it had been bombed, like U.S. planes bombed Korea, Vietnam,
Iraq, Yugoslavia and Afghanistan.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa asked why there wasn’t a safety
device that would have prevented this tragedy. “There needs to be some
kind of failsafe secondary measure to protect against human error, because two
trains on the same track is just unacceptable,” he said. (cbs.2.com)
Such systems have been around since the 1920s. The Pennsylvania Railroad
installed “cab signal” systems on some of its main routes,
including the line from New York City to Washington D.C. now owned by
Cab signals give engineers a replica inside their cabs of the wayside signals
outside. Combined with “automatic train control,” passing a stop
signal in cab-signal- equipped territory will cause an emergency application of
the air brakes.
Amtrak’s lines in the Northeast have cab signals, as do the New Jersey
Transit, Metro North and the Long Island railroad lines. The SEPTA commuter
lines around Philadelphia and most of Chicago’s METRA commuter lines are
also equipped, as are some lines belonging to the Norfolk Southern, CSX and
None of the Metrolink lines have cab signals.
Railroads used to brag about these safety devices. The Chicago and North
Western’s Oct. 27, 1957, passenger timetable pointed out that its Chicago
to Omaha line was equipped with automatic train control. (The Union Pacific has
since gobbled up the North Western.)
The Interstate Commerce Commission allowed the Baltimore & Ohio—now
CSX—to rip out cab signals to save money. This was a contributing cause
to a Feb. 16, 1996, train wreck in Silver Spring, Md. Eleven people died, eight
of whom were Job Corps trainees going home.
Cab signals probably wouldn’t have prevented the Metrolink crash. Even if
the commuter train had been brought to a stop, the Union Pacific freight train
still would have slammed into it. This wreck occurred on a horseshoe curve near
a 500-foot-long tunnel.
Installing “Positive Train Control” (PTC) might be the answer.
Kitty Higgins, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, told the
New York Times that PTC “could have prevented this accident.”
One form of PTC is the Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement System (ACSES)
installed on Amtrak’s Boston to Washington, D.C. line.
The railroad industry claims that installing PTC is too expensive. Yet CSX had
a record operating income last year of $2.3 billion.
What it costs to occupy Iraq for a single day could easily pay for installing
PTC on the entire Metrolink system.
The writer is a member of District 1402, Transportation Communication
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