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Paul Kiesel
Paul Kiesel
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Metrolink Doesn't Learn From Its Mistakes

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According to Saturday’s, September 13, 2008, Los Angeles Times, Federal investigators continued to comb the twisted wreckage of a commuter train in Chatsworth today as fresh details emerged that a Metrolink dispatcher tried, too late, to warn the engineer that he was about to collide with a freight train. The Friday rush-hour crash has so far claimed 25 lives.

Metrolink officials on Saturday said their train’s engineer apparently failed to heed a trackside red light near a junction with a railroad siding. But they did not disclose how they knew the red light was functioning properly.

Regular riders on the route said the Metrolink train heading toward Simi Valley often stops at the junction to wait for a Union Pacific freight train headed toward downtown Los Angeles to switch to the siding.

On Friday, however, the Metrolink train continued north before the freight train had passed, tripping an alarm at the commuter line’s dispatch center in Pomona.

A Metrolink dispatcher called the train and reached the conductor, according to a Metrolink spokesman.

But by then, the crash had already occurred on the curve leading west toward Simi Valley, killing the engineer.

As details of the train collision come to surface, many experts believe that Metrolink could have avoided this “preventable accident.”

“I’m not surprised that once again there has been a terrible, preventable train collision,” said Barry M. Sweedler, a former senior director of the NTSB, who retired after 31 years. “It’s extremely frustrating. They know what to do to solve these things.”

If Metrolink had installed collision-avoidance devices, known as positive train control, which the National Transportation Safety Board has recommended for decades, the electronic devices would have automatically applied the breaks after the engineer failed to comply with signals, preventing the wreck. As of Sunday Night, 135 passengers have been wounded (40 critically), due to the freight train’s locomotive pushing the Metrolink engine back inside the first coach.

“The sophisticated systems can detect speed-limit violations, improperly aligned switches, unauthorized train movements and whether trains are on the wrong track or have missed signals to slow or stop. It does not warn crews about obstacles on tracks,” (Los Angeles Times, 9/14/08).

Metrolink says it does not use positive train control because of the complexity of its track system. However, positive train control projects exist at nine railroads in at least 16 states, but not in California.

Railroad industry representatives say that the reason positive train control isn’t widely used is because of its “high costs.”

Sweedler, who played a major role in adding positive train controls to the board’s wish list, told the Los Angeles Times that the railroad industry has used the same financial and technical excuses for decades to avoid paying for the systems.

“In Alaska they are installing it. It operates on the Northeast corridor. It operates between Chicago and Detroit. The systems work,” he said.

Sweedler blamed the lack of progress on political pressure brought by railroads on Congress and the Federal Railroad Administration, something railroad officials deny.

“What they are saying is that they are willing to accept a certain number of these tragedies every year,” Sweedler said. “This doesn’t make any sense. Let’s put some backbone into this. There is so much that can be achieved.”