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Front Seats of Some Metrolink Trains Are Closed in Safety Move

Times Staff Writers

Metrolink passengers will not be allowed to sit at the front of some passenger trains until federal regulators complete their investigation into the Glendale train collision last month that killed 11 riders, officials said Wednesday.

The commuter-rail operator said it has no evidence the seats are any more dangerous than those in other parts of its trains. But officials said they decided to rope off the front rows in anticipation of any changes regulators might seek when their investigation is completed.

“We took this action out of an abundance of caution,” said David Solow, chief executive officer of Metrolink.

The ban applies to the first 11 seats in the front cars of trains being pushed from behind by locomotives.

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One of the two Metrolink trains that collided on Jan. 26 was being pushed by a locomotive. The other one was being pulled.

After the accident, some rail-safety experts said that trains pushed along the tracks are not as safe as those pulled by locomotives.

Pushed trains put lighter passenger cars in front, which these experts say have a greater chance of being damaged in a collision and are more likely to derail. The configuration also puts more people closer to the point of impact, they said.

Metrolink officials have said that it is too early to determine whether the pushed train played any role in the severity of the accident and that they generally believe the system is safe.

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Authorities allege that construction worker Juan Manuel Alvarez parked his sport utility vehicle in front of an approaching Metrolink train. The train hit the SUV and derailed, hitting an idle freight train and then colliding with another Metrolink train going in the opposite direction. In addition to the 11 deaths, about 180 people were injured. Alvarez was charged with 11 counts of murder and has pleaded not guilty.

“People understand that this was a perfect storm in terms of the accident and not something that is common in the industry,” Solow said.

Solow said he doesn’t believe federal investigators will determine that the fronts of pushed trains are any more hazardous than those of trains being pulled. But he decided to close off the seats just in case.

“People can react any way they want,” he said. “We just feel that until the investigation is done, this was a prudent step to take.”

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Richard Silver, president of the Rail Passenger Assn. of California, called the policy change “foolish” and accused Metrolink leaders of “responding politically, not professionally.”

“I think the concern is erroneous,” said Silver, whose group is made up of rail passengers statewide.

The new policy, he said, has the potential to get people “worried and all stirred up ... really for no reason.”

Metrolink passengers found out about the restriction from notices distributed by Metrolink on Wednesday. Officials said they started closing off the seats Feb. 11.

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Katrina Walker, 31, an office manager who has been commuting to downtown Los Angeles from Burbank for two years, said she usually sits in one of the middle cars but was concerned by the notice. “It makes you nervous,” she said as she left Union Station on Wednesday night, adding she is now confused about whether pushed trains are less safe than pulled ones.

Nadine Holman, 50, a nurse from Lancaster, also favors the middle of the train.

She said the bulletin was nerve-racking, but that she is more concerned about dangers posed by the record rainstorms.

“I’m worried about going under these mountains right now with all this rain and things sliding off,” she said, “but I just put it in God’s hands.”

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Holman said she believes Metrolink should look into adding seat belts to the trains.

Denise Tyrrell, Metrolink spokeswoman, said that the agency is not considering seat belts and that closing off the fronts of the cars is the only new precaution being taken in response to the crash. She said officials worry that seat belts might make it harder for passengers to quickly get off the train in an accident.

As for the new policy, she added: “We need to address [passengers’] perceptions, even if it turns out to be a gesture that was unnecessary. It is worth it to us to make our passengers feel a little more comfortable.”


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