"These agreements do not give Metrolink the power to obligate the freight railroads to install any type of train control system. They also call for Metrolink to pay for any installation that is requested of the freight railroads which would likely entail equipping hundreds if not thousands of freight-owned locomotives."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Metrolink's contracts with freight lines are not good enough reasons to operate without a collision avoidance system.
After the Chatsworth crash, she got so angry on the Senate floor that she called the lack of such a system "criminal negligence."
She said of Metrolink in an interview: "They have to take very aggressive action. . . . If they have to renegotiate a contract, they should renegotiate a contract.
"Safety has to come first," Feinstein said. "I don't believe it has. I believe cost has."
After the Chatsworth crash, Feinstein and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) successfully pushed through Congress a rail safety bill requiring railroads to install a more advanced train control system by 2015.
Elsmore, the former rail safety chief of the state utilities commission, disputed Metrolink's contention that it was powerless to address the problem without cooperation from freight lines.
Metrolink could have asked federal regulators for permission to install a system on its own, he said. That would have been a departure from federal rules that normally require freights and passenger trains on a given rail system to use the same safety equipment.
In fact, since the Chatsworth crash it has asked for such a departure, but only to install a $1.5-million antiquated version that would not have avoided that collision.
The move seems emblematic of Metrolink management's reluctance to take bold steps.
Its leadership has been "driven solely by near-term, low-cost solutions as opposed to strategic or long-range solutions," said Mike McGinley, who retired as Metrolink's director of engineering and construction in 2006.
Metrolink operates as a "perpetual beggar," said Tyrrell, the agency's former spokeswoman.
From its start, Metrolink was an obscure agency controlled by the transportation commissions of Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside and Ventura counties.
Its mission was to operate as inexpensively as possible. The system gets about half its revenue in passenger fares and the other half from the governments of the five counties it serves. Its overall budget this year is $159 million.
The freight railroads it shares tracks with -- Union Pacific and Burlington Northern -- are, by contrast, multibillion-dollar operations that dominate railroading in the West.
Charles V. Smith, a former Orange County supervisor who was a Metrolink board member from 1993 to 2004, said the disparity became a problem when freight dispatchers repeatedly delayed Metrolink's trains. Metrolink was considered such a pipsqueak by one freight rail that its senior executives would not even return telephone calls from the transit line's leaders, Smith recalled.
Smith said he had to travel to Washington to enlist the help of an Orange County businessman he knew, Gus Owen, who was then a federal rail regulator.
Owen got through to a senior freight executive by telephone and bellowed, "Talk to them," Smith recalled.