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Riding the commuter rails, an act of faith and denial

Guest blogger
A Metrolink rider notes: Sit in the middle, facing backwards and hope

Riding an American commuter train is a minor act of faith — or at least of psychological sublimation. A passenger must manage to forget the reality of being aboard a cannonball traveling up to 79 miles per hour. It can take half a mile to bring a train to a stop, not nearly enough braking power to prevent a wreck such as the one that derailed cars and injured 28 people at a crossing in Ventura County on Tuesday morning.

I take Metrolink trains from L.A. south to Orange County and back at least three times a week in willful denial that it is — statistically speaking — the railroad with the worst rate of passenger fatalities in the nation. At one point, Metrolink was reported to be responsible for up to two-thirds of all U.S. rail deaths.

This ignoble designation stemmed largely from two horrific wrecks: the 2005 Glendale crash in which a jilted husband drove his SUV onto the tracks and then fled at the last moment, leaving 11 to die in the ensuing collision, and the 2008 disaster in Chatsworth in which an engineer more concerned with texting than driving ran through a red signal and rammed into a stalled freight train, killing himself and 24 passengers. The grade-level crossing, at Rice Avenue, where the train derailed Tuesday is the most dangerous in Ventura County, according to railroad safety consultant Robert Halsted of IronWood Technologies of Syracuse, N.Y. He said that federal data show that the crossing has seen at least 13 crashes in the last four decades, one of which was a double-fatality last year.

To be fair, Metrolink has come a long way since Chatsworth. Cameras have been installed inside the engine cabs to discourage drivers from looking at anything but the tracks ahead. Metrolink acquired 137 carriages designed to crumple in such a way as to provide maximum protection to passengers in an accident, and they seemed to help on Tuesday. It has begun to install a “positive train control” system that is supposed to automatically detect track obstructions, though the system apparently wasn’t yet active on the Ventura County line where Tuesday’s crash took place.

Even though the actual risk of a crash is still vanishingly small, I still think about it when I climb on board. I try to improve my odds by selecting the place on the train that safety experts say is the least likely place you can get injured: a car in the middle of the train, top level, riding backward (the middle position is less exposed to a rear- or front-end collision; the backward facing seat adds protection in the case of the more common front-end crash) . I never, ever ride in the front car — the “coffin car,” as old Metrolink hands call it — a passenger car with a engineer cab that leads the train when the engine is in the rear.

But my precautions are only a fig leaf for my psyche, a slight illusion of control, just as booking your airline seat near the latrines at rear of the aircraft and away from the fuel-filled wings is no guarantee of surviving a runway crash. (More passengers die in rail crashes every year than in scheduled commercial airline flights, a fact that belies the sense of relative safety that comes from being firmly attached to Mother Earth.)

A certain hypnosis comes along with riding the rails, with its comforting rocking motion so akin to a boat in gentle water or a baby’s cradle. I often fall helplessly into a nap while on board Metrolink in the late afternoons. And I try to forget the remote possibility that this could all end badly — with another idiot trying to beat the lowering boom bars or perhaps leaving a disabled vehicle parked on the tracks like Tuesday’s ticking time bomb — and that the whole rock steady illusion can come apart, with a bang and a roar.

Tom Zoellner is an associate professor of English at Chapman University and the author of “Train: Riding the Rails that Created the Modern World, from the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief.”

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