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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 stop signal.

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 Amtrak.

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 Union Pacific.

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 Union, IAM.