Brief thoughts on the Metrolink Chatsworth crash [UPDATES at end]

[UPDATE — a follow-on post is now available here.]

It’s understandable that there’s a lot of attention on the aftermath of Hurricane Ike right about now — in terms of power outages and simple wreckage alone, it was a monster — but out here in the LA area the big thing on my mind is the horrific crash yesterday involving a Union Pacific freight train and a Metrolink commuter train. A head-on collision at high speed, perhaps the most horrifying prospect one could imagine when it comes to train accidents:

Metrolink’s Train 111, en route from Los Angeles’ Union Station to Moorpark, had just left the Chatsworth station when the crash occurred at 4:23 p.m. on a 45-degree bend. The engine of the freight train embedded itself in the front Metrolink carriage as both trains derailed, sending one of the train’s three cars full of homebound commuters keeling onto its side. An earsplitting concussion rocked nearby homes, followed by screams from those aboard.

“I saw it coming,” said Eric Forbes, 56, an administrator at Cal State Northridge who was riding in the second or third car of the Metrolink train when he glanced out the window to see the freight train bearing down. He spoke later at a nearby triage center, his raspy voice swelling with emotion as he was wheeled on a stretcher to an ambulance.

“There was no time to stop,” he said. “The next thing I knew I was in a seat in front of me. It was horrible.”

….

Tom Dinger, an engineer who retired last year from Amtrak after a 43-year railroad career, said normal procedure called for the northbound passenger train to pull into a rail siding at the Chatsworth station to allow the southbound freight train to pass. He said he had steered through that stretch of track hundreds of times. Between Chatsworth and Simi Valley there is only one set of tracks because of narrow tunnels that trains use to go through the Santa Susana Pass.

The death toll is currently at 18 but could well rise, as they are still carefully working through the wreckage given the possibility of other survivors.

Further LA Times stories include some survivor recollections, including the note that “there are no seat belts, since Metrolink trains are not designed for sudden stops,” something which I had observed plenty of times before but had not heard a rationale for, and a Bottleneck Blog post with a pertinent observation:

Last night, I was able to reach Richard Stanger. He was executive director of Metrolink in its infant years from 1991 to 1998 and now works as a transportation consultant. We spoke about the railroad’s history and how it came to be that commuter trains and freight trains must often share the same set of tracks.

The Metrolink tracks probably carry “more freight traffic and commuter traffic than just about anywhere else in the country,” Stanger said. “It’s all very highly regulated and signalized and very carefully watched by dispatchers daily. There have been hundreds of thousands of freight and Metrolink trips in the last 16 years, so it’s extraordinary when there’s an event like this. At this point, it’s too early to know the reasons behind the crash.”

Friday’s crash occurred on a stretch of single track that extends from just north of the Chatsworth Station through the Santa Susana Pass. There is double track again just west of the pass on the edge of Simi Valley. Was the single track through the pass a big problem through the years? I asked him.

Stanger said it had not been. The two tunnels that carry the single track under the pass were constructed in the early 1900s; building a new tunnel would be costly. Also, he said, though there is some freight moved on the Ventura line, it’s not nearly as much as on the tracks east of Los Angeles — those are the lines that deliver goods to the rest of the country.

“It would be ideal if it was double-tracked. Nevertheless, the signal system is designed to keep trains from being on the same track at the same time,” Stanger said, “and it has done that year after year.”

The coldest comfort for anyone affected by this, of course — not comfort at all. Reactions over at MetroRiderLA make for interesting and varied reading in the comments but I would have to agree with one poster who says:

If you know me, you know that I’m certainly not a believer in “100% risk-free” anything. I admit, my comments are emotional, but I also believe that there was probably basic negligence that lead to this accident. I could be wrong, but it seems that way initially. If in fact it is discovered that it was caused by a negligent operator or faulty piece of equipment, certainly a failure occurred. You then “fix” the cause of whatever caused the operator to be negligent (better training, management, equipment, etc) or “fix” the faulty equipment (new vendor, more maintenance, new technology, etc.)

Again, that reads coldly, but it also seems to match with what is initially known — an accident like this, of this nature, for the first time in sixteen years of running Metrolink on this particular line simply doesn’t sound like something that was inevitable due to the nature of the tracks themselves. It is also quite possible, especially if the cause was human error, that an exact answer will never be known.

I’ve only been on that stretch of track once, two years back on my trip up and down the West Coast, via Amtrak rather than Metrolink. I can’t say I ever thought that there was going to be a problem, and if you read the survivors’ stories in particular you get a sense that they never did either — there was a comforting regularity, an acknowledgment of other fellow riders and a sense that the weekend was here and it was time to relax. To be frank, this is as it should be — one cannot and should not live in constant fear that life may be about to trip you up, even when the risks are clear (to bring Ike into it again briefly, last night a friend expressed surprise that people would choose to live in such an exposed place for hurricane impact like Galveston, to which I immediately responded, “You realize we’re living in an earthquake zone, yes?”).

Back in 2005 — to focus on an even grimmer situation than yesterday’s accident — I arrived in London literally a day after the disastrous bombings in the Tube/bus system there, which claimed the life of an acquaintance of mine. Sensing the silence and nerves among the fellow passengers on the lines I was riding was there and palpable, but nonetheless riding continued, and upon my next visit in 2007, while associations were still inevitable, things felt more relaxed almost by default.

None of this is meant to minimize the horrific trauma that’s occurred, and were I a survivor I would likely be still in unsettled shock now and for a while to come. But I suppose I’m not directing this post to them or their loved ones — or those who have lost loved ones — so much as to anyone else reading this and wanting to assume the worst about the transit system around here, or non-car travel in general. It’s an obvious thing to say but if there was clear negligence and a failure of something somewhere, and if the error can be traced, responsible parties held accountable and new features done to work against a repeat, then let it all be done, and it should be done — there must be answers, as clear as possible.

But that’s no reason to beat down on alternate transit, or to suspect it. As noted, there are risks, they are run. To quote another commenter from MetroRideLA again, from a position far more invested than I have in such things:

I lost a loved [one] seven years ago yesterday in lower Manhattan, owing to air travel being abused. I have since flown a few tens of times across the continent….For all the fatal accidents….I refuse to not ride the rails nor take air travel (when it is relatively affordable) as well as do what I love best: drive across the continent thanks to Auto Driveaway.

And why not?

UPDATE — earlier today this report appeared, which, if accurately describing what happened to cause the crash, is very, very depressing:

A spokeswoman for the Metrolink commuter rail service says the probable cause of the collision that killed at least 23 people was the failure of a Metrolink engineer to stop his train at a red signal.

Metrolink spokeswoman Denise Tyrrell said Saturday the engineer worked for a subcontractor that has been used by Metrolink since 1998.

She said she had no further details about the signal’s location and wouldn’t say if the engineer had survived Friday’s crash.

There are questions that immediately leap to mind — who was this engineer? the subcontractor? how experienced was the engineer? had there been any past incidents similar to this one? — and the language is one of probability rather than of direct sureness, but if this holds — and it is shown that the equipment was working properly but that a signal was somehow ignored or missed — then this tragedy is all the more profound.

UPDATE 2: the LA Times has some more details:

“We want to be honest in our appraisal,” [Tyrell] said at the scene of the crash….”Barring any information from the NTSB, we believe our engineer failed to stop and that was the cause of the accident,” she said, referring to the National Transportation Safety Board. “Of course, it is your worst fear that this could happen, that the ability for human error to occur could come into the scenario.”

She said the engineer, whom she did not identify, was a subcontractor with Veolia Transportation and a former Amtrak employee. Tyrrell said she believed that he had been killed in the crash but that she could not confirm the death. She said she did not know why a series of safety measures and controls along the way, including communication with dispatchers, failed.

Veolia Transportation’s website is here. From ‘Who We Are‘:

Veolia Transportation is North America’s largest private transportation provider. We are also one of the only companies to provide a complete range of transportation solutions; from commuter bus to rail; from private hire to paratransit; from bus-rapid-transit to shared ride transportation. We like to think we have a solution for all transportation needs.

And so forth.

UPDATE 3: The engineer mentioned by Tyrrell is confirmed to have died in the crash. NTSB officials have followed up Tyrrell’s statement by noting that the cause is still under investigation.

UPDATE 4: This LA Times piece on the emergency responders is essential reading. All mentioned in it should take honest, full pride in being ready for the kind of task that many of us will hopefully never have to encounter, and some of the details are simply harrowing. To quote a small part:

He began to make dismal calculations. Two or three could be extracted quickly. Six or seven were dead.

“About eight or 10,” Nagel said, “were alive but weren’t going to make it.”

Barrios lives in Moorpark; many of the crash victims, he figured, lived in his community. One man screamed for help; all they could see was his hand sticking out from under another passenger’s body. Others were shouting: “Get me out! Get me out!”

“You know these people were going home to their families,” Barrios said. “But they’re not going home.”

UPDATE 5: If this report is true, words quite fail me:

According to preliminary reports, the Metrolink engineer may have been text messaging from the cab of the train moments before the devastating crash.

The engineer is said to have been exchanging messages with 15-year-old train enthusiast Nick Williams in the hour and minutes leading up to the accident. The messages were apparently mundane in character — mostly about where the engineer was and where he was going.

The engineer supposedly sent a third and final text message to Williams with a time stamp of 4:22 p.m. The accident happened just one minute later, at 4:23 p.m.

It remains unclear whether the message was sent right at 4:22 p.m. as the time stamp indicates, or if it was sent some time before then.

A Metrolink spokeswoman expressed disbelief that the engineer might have been distracted by a cellphone.

“That would be to me unbelievable,” Metrolink spokeswoman Denise Tyrrell said. “I cannot imagine a scenario where a Metrolink engineer would be texting someone while driving a train.”

Frankly I cannot either. Again, we must know more. This story adds further information.

UPDATE 6 — some more information regarding signals and the route:

“That is a daily freight train. It’s a regular traveler on those tracks,” said Francisco Oaxaca, a Metrolink spokesman. He said the spot where the two trains pass can vary, depending on whether the freight train is running early or late.

“It was often either waiting in that area or we’d have to pull off and wait for it,” said Mike Custodio, 37, an assistant city attorney who rides the 3:35 p.m. train on Fridays.

Shortly before the crash, the Metrolink train was stopped on a siding at the Chatsworth station. The red signal, apparently near the point where the commuter train returned to the single, shared track, was believed to be working properly, Tyrrell said. Those signals are controlled from the Metrolink dispatch center in Pacoima, where train positions are constantly monitored.

The engineer is responsible for checking signals and abiding by them, Oaxaca said. Typically, when an engineer encounters a signal, he radios the train’s conductor, who is supposed to radio back confirming the signal’s color.

It wasn’t clear if that procedure was followed Friday. “That’s going to be part of our investigation and that’s what we’re working with the NTSB on,” Oaxaca said.

UPDATE 7 — further details regarding the signal have been reported by the LA Times:

On Friday….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.

Metrolink spokesman Francisco Oaxaca said that officials were still investigating what triggered the alarm.

UPDATE 8 — things are rapidly getting convoluted in terms of the question of the engineer and the signal, and the impressions being generated are not exactly positive. For instance:

National Transportation Safety Board member Kitty Higgins said a computer reading indicated the last signal before the collision site was displaying a red light. But she said investigators wanted to make sure it wasn’t a false reading.

Higgins criticized Metrolink for saying Saturday that an engineer had been at fault for failing to heed the red signal, causing the crash with a Union Pacific freight train that so far has claimed 25 lives and left 135 injured, 40 critically.

“I don’t know on what basis Metrolink made that statement. We really work very hard not to jump to conclusions,” Higgins said at a Sunday news conference in Woodland Hills.

….

The train passed four signals between De Soto Avenue and Nashville Street that, if working correctly, would have flashed yellow or red to warn the engineer to slow and stop.

The engineer, stationed at the front of the train, and conductor, stationed at the back, customarily call each other to repeat signals seen by the engineer, Higgins said. Officials have listened to recordings and found no indication that the engineer and conductor exchanged information on the last two signals, one of which should have been flashing yellow and the other red. The investigators were unsure whether “dead zones” might have interfered with such communication.

Higgins also disclosed that the Metrolink train “blew through” a switch controlling a junction with a railroad siding closest to the accident site. A data recorder said the Metrolink train was traveling at 42 mph when it passed the switch.

NTSB officials have interviewed a Metrolink dispatcher based in Pomona who said he had set up the signals and the switch so that the Union Pacific freighter and the Metrolink train could pass without incident. But Higgins disputed a Metrolink assertion that the dispatcher had tried to contact the train about a potential collision course, a message that allegedly arrived too late.

“By the time the dispatcher realized there was something wrong, the accident had already occurred,” Higgins said. She added that the conductor, who was seriously injured, called the dispatcher to notify him of the accident. The conductor had not been interviewed by her agency, she added.

Tyrrell, meanwhile, has now resigned from her job, as Bottleneck Blog reports:

…yesterday, the Metrolink Board of Directors met in closed session, and after they emerged Ron Roberts, the chair of the Board, issued a statement — first reported on this blog — saying that the National Transportation Safety Board believed the assignment of blame was premature and that the board agreed.

….

Here’s what Tyrrell told me:

“I felt the damage to my reputation is so great, I could not work for these people anymore,” Tyrrell said. “If I am not mistaken, the engineer blew through a light. The media got on top of this story apparently so unaccustomed to a public agency telling the truth they started to spin it that we were trying to throw all the blame on the engineer. Metrolink is responsible for the engineer, they are responsible for overseeing the contractor. Talking about the human error aspect of this is not a way to shift blame from Metrolink — Metrolink is still the responsible party to oversee the contract with the engineer and the conductors.”

Tyrrell said that she listened in on the board meeting yesterday by telephone, as did most of the board. The board was in closed session most of the time, so Tyrrell would not provide details of what was said in the meeting.

“I am not at liberty to discuss the contents of the board meeting, but I think I can reveal they were unhappy without violating any confidentiality. I was a listener — it was a telephone conference. I did not participate, I was not asked to participate, I was asked to attend the meeting.”

She said Metrolink’s CEO David Solow gave her the authority to make statements to the press on Saturday about the cause of the crash.

“He told me to go ahead…I felt that when my reputation was called into question in the national media by Ron Roberts that there was no going back as far as I was concerned. I believe that David Solow’s decision to allow us to go public without waiting for the NTSB to point the finger was a brave and honorable thing to do. We have a basic difference here that can’t be resolved. I see no way I can represent them and maintain my own standards. They are free to conduct their own business as they see fit.”

Needless to say, this whole thing has just turned extremely bizarre.

UPDATE 9 — of the many sad stories that have emerged, this is one of the saddest.

UPDATE 10 — Tyrrell’s situation seems to be approaching whiplash now:

But late Monday, the tides began to turn again, this time in her favor.

Michael R. Peevey, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, which is the principal state agency for rail safety, announced an investigation into the crash that would include “interviewing the former spokeswoman for Metrolink who resigned from the agency, allegedly after her candor in assessing responsibility for the accident was questioned by her superiors.”

Supervisor Mike Antonovich said through a representative that he plans to propose that the Metrolink board reconsider her resignation.

“Denise Tyrrell is in the middle of a chaotic and stressful situation and we don’t want her to resign under those conditions,” said Kathryn Leibrich, Antonovich’s chief of staff.

“The supervisor would like to suggest that Metrolink reconsider her resignation,” Leibrich said.

UPDATE 11 — Busy day for me today so just a quick LA Times link noting that reenactments are under way, among other details.

Further updates have been added to a new post.

4 Responses to “Brief thoughts on the Metrolink Chatsworth crash [UPDATES at end]”

  1. Fred Camino Says:

    Very thoughtful post Ned. It will be interesting to see what becomes of this investigation. If there’s any good to be found in this, if it does turn out to be negligence that lead to this accident, then it is something that can be addressed and fixed to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.

  2. Ned Raggett Says:

    Thank you, Fred — there is something profoundly sad about having to try and maintain a distance on a situation like this even while ultimately placing oneself in the shoes of the many on the train and imagining that terror. For those of us who DO ride regularly, we at least can make it more concrete in our heads than for those who rarely or never had, and can only think of both trains and accidents in the abstract.

  3. The Chatsworth Metrolink crash, continued « Ned Raggett Ponders It All Says:

    […] Chatsworth Metrolink crash, continued September 17, 2008 — Ned Raggett My initial post had to be rapidly and continually updated as I went, as more stories and, frankly, confusion […]

  4. tim Says:

    you can see the metro link engineer in the window .1 second before
    the crash. he is looking right at the oncoming train


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