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Metrolink Still Struggling with Saftey Improvements

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From the Los Angeles Times:

As the anniversary of the Sept. 12 Chatsworth train disaster approaches, officials with Southern California’s sprawling commuter rail service are facing a vexing array of technical, financial and potential legal challenges as they struggle to deliver on pledges of trailblazing safety reforms.

A burst of energy to remake the region’s Metrolink train operation was unleashed by the deadliest rail collision in modern California history, a watershed event that killed 25, injured 130 and prompted landmark federal mandates to modernize the nation’s rail safety systems.

Today, the rush to reform Metrolink — a thinly staffed hybrid transportation agency once derided as the political stepchild of the five counties that created it — is becoming increasingly costly, time-consuming and complicated.

Labor leaders are digging in to fight an unprecedented push by agency officials to place locomotive train crews under continuous video surveillance.

Technical and financial challenges loom over an ambitious schedule to a deploy a $200-million collision-avoidance network for all commuter, freight and intercity trains moving across hundreds of miles of track.

Meanwhile, Metrolink officials have reversed course on an effort to assume direct control over hiring, training and supervising rail crews, a move prompted partly by disclosures that in Chatsworth, an engineer employed by a contractor apparently ran a red light while sending a text message on his cellphone just before colliding head-on with a freight train.

Fearing that trying to manage on-board train crews could overtax staff and trigger thorny labor issues, Metrolink’s board of directors opted to farm out the critical function again, this time to Amtrak.

Compounding financial strains, ridership has been sliding since the crash, largely because of lower gas prices and the recession. Fare revenues dropped $1.4 million below estimates in the last quarter alone.

And operating insurance premiums recently surged $1 million above estimates because of Metrolink’s accident history over the last decade, averaging one potentially catastrophic liability payout every two years, records show.

Although no major wrecks have occurred since Chatsworth, smaller accidents involving cars and pedestrians are running about the same this year as last — 3.25 and 3.4 per month, respectively, the agency says.

But a rash of incidents leading up to this week’s memorial observances has served as a reminder of the risks Metrolink confronts in its heavily urban mixed-rail environment.

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