The Chatsworth Metrolink crash, continued [updates posted at the end]

My initial post had to be rapidly and continually updated as I went, as more stories and, frankly, confusion emerged regarding not simply the tragic accident but the in-retrospect chaotic flurry of press statements, admissions and retractions and overall bizarreness regarding both the accident and how it was handled. Combined with a work crunch I needed to step away a bit to see what if anything came clearer. Over the last couple of days, this all came to light, referring to a variety of LA Times stories:

  • The engineer of the Metrolink train — this profile of his life is worth reading, and shows he bore some heavy burdens — had indeed sent and received texts on the day of the crash, though there is no official word yet on whether he had done so just before the crash, as has been claimed. Should the investigation show this to be the case — and at this point, the investigators have ruled out problems with the trains or the signals — it would be depressingly clear that for whatever reason the engineer put himself and his passengers at unacceptable risk. The proposed policy change to forbid personal wireless communications among train crew members that the CPUC appears set to implement is quite logical given the circumstance.
  • Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has replaced two members of the Metrolink board, claiming that the board’s actions with regard to spokeswoman Denise Tyrrell were collectively flawed. The mayor claims that the two replaced members weren’t specifically being singled out but it’s hard to assume otherwise, frankly.
  • Attention is now focusing in Congress on the question of positive train controls as a safety backup, and whether it should be specifically required in all cases. David Solow, the Metrolink CEO who was involved in the Tyrrell weirdness of the weekend, testified last year in front of Congress that ‘flexibility’ was key — perhaps a logical argument to make given the complexity of the train systems around here, but now politically unacceptable.

MetroRiderLA has posted an opinion piece in support of Tyrrell which also serves as a thoughtful reflection on the nature of Metrolink as an organization that is well worth the read. To quote it briefly:

I’ve talked to Board members, staff, and passengers, and there is a unique bond between the passengers and the staff, which has survived previous incidents, annual fare increases, and other issues. And sometimes, you have to face up to the reality of what happened, and try to start the healing process. The odds of the story changing are very slim, probably slimmer than the chance of the collision happening in the first place.

After an incident, there is a lot of speculation. Could it be the Union Pacific’s fault? A case of terrorism? (After all, almost simultaneously to when she made the statement, a special Board meeting was held regarding a potential threat to public safety.) Tyrrell needed to reassure commuters by telling all of the facts she knew. NTSB investigations usually take over a year and at the end they tell everyone what they already know. Meanwhile, a lot of goodwill is lost.

The LA Times Bottleneck Blog has been posting a variety of stories, unsurprisingly.

I have little more to add than what I said in the original post I made: “…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.” It’s still early days, of course, but it is beginning, and none too soon.

Earlier today, as expected, the CPUC has now banned the use of cellphones for on-duty rail workers. I can sense where there can be possible objections or modifications to this policy worked out over time — it could be argued, I think rightly, that there is a need for contact in case someone close to an on-duty worker needs to get hold of someone urgently, but if the policy is made plain that when a worker is on-duty that only emergency contacts would be allowed, and that anyone attempting to contact someone on-duty would need to be aware of this in turn, then I think a reasonable balance would be able to be struck. Too late for this long overdue change to be made, but better late than never — it certainly has been an eye-opener to realize that there was no such policy like this in place beforehand, but I fear that is always going to be the case when technology outstrips necessary adjustment in regulation.

That same link details the funeral of police officer Spree DeSha. Without wanting to make her a symbol — from what I can tell in the reports and memories that have been posted, she was a low-key and no-nonsense person and officer who would have been embarrassed by what she considered to be outsized attention — I think it is a sign of some sort of progress, quietly but ever onward, that full honors from the police, church and city were granted to someone who also just happened to be lesbian, and whose partner, shown in the LA Times photo below, also works for the LAPD as a full officer. This is as it should be. No further qualifiers are necessary.

A last farewell

Rest in peace.

UPDATE Friday 19 — three brief LA Times stories to note: first, one on the teenage railfans who apparently knew the Metrolink engineer. My only comment is that I fully understand both the impulse of total fandom in general, as well as acknowledging how they feel like they’ve gotten a raw deal in the press. It’s a rough lesson to learn, but still worth learning.

Meanwhile, this story of a crash between a Blue Line train and a bus is really what Metrolink and the MTA in general doesn’t need right about now. Bottleneck Blog has more.

Finally, a vigil is being held tonight in Chatsworth:

The girls decorated several hundred tea lights that they will hand out to participants to recognize the survivors of the crash — which occurred just steps away from some residents’ homes — and special candles representing each of those who died, Daniels said.

The ceremony is scheduled to begin at 6:45 p.m. at 10046 Old Depot Plaza Road.

The location via Google Maps is here.

(And a last addition for the day — the story of Paul Long, his fellow pastor, and a final sermon. I am irreligious, but I am not made of stone, and this is a moving story of a passing, and a remembrance.)

UPDATES Saturday 20 — two very good new pieces to note at the LA Times — first, an overall report on how the investigation will be done:

“It’s a very deliberative, careful process,” said agency board member Kitty Higgins, who responded from Washington, D.C., with the safety board’s 17-member “Go Team.”

The group, which includes rail experts, electrical engineers and psychologists, was on call when the Sept. 12 crash occurred and flew to Los Angeles the next morning.


The NTSB is one of the smallest federal agencies in Washington. It has 400 employees, half of them dedicated to investigations. Typically, it investigates about 2,000 aviation accidents each year and about 500 other accidents on railways, highways and waterways.

The NTSB has no enforcement authority and relies largely on the thoroughness of its investigations and final reports. “The only thing the board has is its credibility,” said James E. Hall, who chaired the agency’s five-member board of directors during the Clinton administration.


To leverage its limited resources, the agency relies on the “party system,” which Workman and his investigators launched at the scene.

Every party involved in the Chatsworth collision — Metrolink, the Los Angeles Fire Department and the union representing the Union Pacific engineer, among others — has been asked to take part in the investigation.

Second is this revealing story about Metrolink — while I knew it was separate from the MTA and similar organizations like the OCTA, I had no true idea of how much of a red-headed stepchild it is in terms of funding via the many counties it works with. As a jury rig organization, personally I think it’s actually done extremely well overall, but it sounds like it is seriously time to consider what can be done to improve both its budget and its overall governance.

As I’ve said before, if something can be done to improve on this tragedy, to take lessons learned and apply them, then some good can come out of it. But it is starting to sound like it is not just simply a question of safety equipment and training, but deeper institutional review. It is one thing to support the goal of mass transit, and I have a good general faith in Metrolink’s employees (or, as I now more clearly understand, its many subcontracted employees), but it is another to support blindly.

RIP Norman Whitfield

Man, this is just a bad, bad week for music:

Norman Whitfield, a producer and songwriter whose work propelled Motown Records into more ambitious musical territory, died Tuesday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was 67.


In the late 1960s the New York-born Whitfield helped push Motown beyond the sweet melodies and puppy-love tales of its early days into edgier, more expansive sounds. Incorporating rock elements and psychedelic textures into his work, he helped groups such as the Temptations keep pace with the ’60s musical revolution.

With collaborator Barrett Strong — himself in a Detroit hospital recovering from a stroke — Whitfield cowrote many of Motown’s biggest hits, including its single most successful song, “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” recorded by Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight & the Pips.

Whitfield’s post-Motown years in the 1970s most famously included the 1977 hit “Car Wash” by Rose Royce.

As a commenter on the Idolator thread noted, “He produced and co-wrote “I Wish It Would Rain,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “I Can’t Get Next to You,” “Superstar,” “Just My Imagination,” “Ball of Confusion”” — those credits alone leave so many people in the dust it’s not even funny. And that’s without even specifically mentioning “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and “Cloud Nine!” It’s one of those monumental resumes that’s so huge, its impact so broad, that all you can do is almost stare slack-jawed.

For that reason and due to a work crunch, I won’t have too much to say here — it takes a better commenter than I — but if you’ll allow me a couple of YouTube clips:

Just scraping the surface here. RIP, Mr. Whitfield — it’s one hell of a legacy.