Trying to shed a record of deadly accidents, Southern California's Metrolink system will take a leap forward on safety this week when it unveils the nation's first commuter train cars designed to better protect riders and crews with crash-absorbing, collapsible impact zones.
Akin to the crushable bumpers added to automobiles in the 1970s, the 117 high-tech cars, costing a total of $230 million, are the product of years of federal research and a fast-tracked development push by the region's rail service after a horrific accident five years ago in Glendale.
After another deadly collision in 2008 exposed lax safety practices, the agency hopes its voluntary deployment of the innovative train cars in the fall -- after a summer of testing and federal certification --will mark a milestone in its effort to rebuild public trust and reassure its customers.
Customers like Miguel Alvarado of Norwalk.
"Two or three [big] accidents makes you ask: 'Are you sure you're safe?' " said Alvarado, a retired county social worker waiting for a train at the Santa Fe Springs station last week.
Metrolink officials stress that their goal is to prevent crashes through an array of innovative safety advancements, including using video cameras to watch locomotive engineers and setting the country's most aggressive deadline for launching a high-tech, computerized collision avoidance system.
But safety experts and the Federal Railroad Administration, which helped underwrite studies and crash testing underpinning the new design, are also praising Metrolink for leading the industry toward a passenger car safety standard long sought by the National Transportation Safety Board.
"It's very encouraging," said Kitty Higgins, a former NTSB board member who oversaw the on-site investigation of the 2008 Metrolink disaster in Chatsworth, one of the worst rail accidents in modern state history. "We've known for a long time certain basic things need to be done to make these cars more substantial."
Among the key defenses incorporated into the shiny, stainless-steel double-decker cars will be collapsible nose cones in front of engineers and riders on so-called cab cars, the passenger vehicles that lead the trains half the time as they run in reverse, heading inbound toward the Los Angeles Union Station hub. Current cab cars have little in front of the driver's control booth and the passenger compartment except a flat, thin car wall.
Though such "push" operations have been standard in the passenger rail industry for decades, that configuration drew intense criticism and legal assaults after most of the 11 victims in the 2005 Glendale crash died in a mangled cab car. Images of the tragedy -- caused by a man who deliberately parked his sport utility vehicle across the rails -- have remained with riders like Alvarado, who say they now search for seats in the middle or rear of trains.
"If I go in back," Alvarado said of his seat selection strategy, "maybe I have a chance to survive."
Other new safety features include piston-like, push-back car frames and couplers that transfer crash energy around passengers to the rear of the train. Redesigned seating, tables that crush on impact, improved escape and rescue access, fire-retardant materials and anti-derailment technology also represent a "material step forward," said Grady Cothen, a top Federal Railroad Administration safety official.
Federal studies have found that such improvements can dramatically reduce deaths and incursions into passenger space in many accidents.
For example, in one scenario with a crash-resistant cab car in the lead position and similarly outfitted passenger cars behind it -- which Metrolink ultimately intends to have -- fatalities were predicted to drop 75%, from as many as 60 to about 15 in a 35-mph impact, records show. The crushed section of the cab car would be reduced from about 35 feet with existing cars to just a couple of feet with energy-absorbing cars, federal models show.
The only similar safety designs are found on a different class of light, intercity high-speed trains in the nation's Northeast corridor.
How the new commuter rail cars would fare in an 80-mph crash is not as clear, because a force like that would exceed the testing and design limits of federal safety research, officials say. That was the combined closing speed of the two locomotive-led trains that hit head-on in Chatsworth, killing 25 and injuring 135. In that case, some researchers suspect the heavy engines helped absorb much of the crash force.
Such events are extreme and rare, officials say, but even at high speeds the new energy-absorbing features should afford significantly better passenger protection. "This is the collective wisdom of all the past accidents," said Metrolink's new chief executive, John E. Fenton, adding that the result is "the safest car that's ever been built."
With no federal mandate for commuter systems to adopt the new technology, safety advocates and Federal Railroad Administration officials are hoping Metrolink's leadership and service experience will prod other rail networks to follow suit.
Being the first to field a new generation of rolling stock carries potential added costs and maintenance challenges, Cothen acknowledged, notably with the movable, impact-absorbing coupling system. Already, the first cars were delivered about a year behind the original schedule.
Metrolink says it plans extensive testing without passengers in the coming months to work out any glitches and modify production details if necessary. In all, the agency is buying 57 cab cars and 60 regular passenger cars. The cars are being manufactured in South Korea by Rotem Co., with final assembly at a Metrolink facility in Colton.
After a media preview Monday, the cars will be on public display May 8 at Union Station and in San Bernardino. Testing and federal safety approvals are expected to be completed in September, with the cars appearing in passenger service in the fall.
Alvarado, once a regular Metrolink commuter, said he doesn't need to understand the new crash-resistant technology. He's just happy it's coming.
"If the company's going to improve the safety," he said, "that's going to be great."