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Los Angeles Metrolink struggles with reforms

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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, The Los Angeles Times reports.

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 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 cell phone 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.

In one potentially horrific
crash last month, rescuers in Oxnard were aiding an auto accident victim at a
crossing on track owned by Union Pacific. Police and firefighters tried to
alert the freight railroad. But word failed to reach a Metrolink train in time
and it slammed into the injured man’s disabled pickup seconds after rescuers
pulled him free.

Some Metrolink officials
stressed that the agency was not at fault. But several board members say the
incident shows that communication and safety oversight problems persist.

The dimensions of the
issues confronting Metrolink are indeed daunting for an agency staff that has
remained small because of outsourcing as ridership has grown. Just fielding the
new so-called positive train control system — years ahead of the rest of the
country — will be "a big lift" for Metrolink, said Kitty Higgins, a
former National Transportation Safety Board member who oversaw investigative
hearings this year on the Chatsworth crash.

Such a system, which can use
satellite positioning, on-board automatic braking computers and trackside
telemetry, is supposed to cover more than 500 miles of Metrolink routes at a
cost of $201.6 million to the agency alone.

"I think [Metrolink
has] the right goals," Higgins said, adding that the agency’s aggressive
safety agenda appears to have helped reassure the public. "The question is
what’s the realistic target for getting from here to there."

Agency leaders insist they
are on course to position Metrolink at the forefront of rail safety in the
country. They cite a number of changes already being made. Among them: placing
a second crew member as a lookout in control cabs, fast-tracking less
sophisticated automatic train stopping equipment for dozens of potentially
hazardous track junctions, strengthening safety rules and increasing the number
of personnel hunting for violations.

And despite months of
slippage on its delivery schedule, Metrolink is first in line for a new
generation of passenger cars that are supposed to reduce damage in a collision
and better protect riders.

"I’m very pleased with
the significant amount of progress the agency has made on a number of
fronts," said Metrolink Chairman Keith Millhouse. "Yes, there are
some lead times on these [reforms]. But the journey begins with a first
step."

Cameras are a critical
safety measure until positive train control is up and running, officials say. That
is supposed to happen in Southern California in 2012, three years earlier than
the federal deadline for the nation as a whole.

Some experts are
questioning whether the 2015 national timeline is realistic. Nonetheless,
Metrolink, Union Pacific and other key parties say they remain committed to
getting Southern California’s system in place early. Thus far only $75 million
has been secured, though officials are optimistic more federal money will
arrive.

Demonstration projects have
shown the complex systems do prevent train-on-train collisions. But they are
not necessarily foolproof.

"The good news about
getting it first is we’re getting it first. The bad news about getting it first
is, we’re also getting it first," Katz said. "Hopefully they’ll work
out all the kinks. But to a large extent, we’re the guinea pigs, in that
sense."

Union Pacific spokesman Tom
Lange stressed that for positive train control to succeed, numerous
sophisticated systems must "operate seamlessly and with virtually fail-safe
standards under all conditions."

But making it work — and
work quickly — is essential, Metrolink officials say.

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