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Pushing of Trains Gets New Scrutiny

Times Staff Writers

Since the commuter rail system opened in 1992, 15 passengers have died on Metrolink trains in three separate accidents -- all of them involving trains being pushed from behind by a locomotive instead of being pulled.

Nationally, at least half a dozen horrific accidents, killing 38 passengers and injuring almost 1,000, have occurred in the last decade involving trains being pushed.

The widely accepted practice of pushing trains has gone on for decades in the commuter railroad industry, but since the deadly Jan. 26 crash of a Metrolink train in Glendale, it has come under intense new scrutiny. After long condoning the practice, federal regulators now say they are conducting a fresh review of the issue.

Putting heavy locomotives at the rear of a train, some experts say, leaves passengers much more vulnerable in frontal crashes and may be particularly risky along routes shared with freight trains and in dense urban settings with frequent grade crossings. At 130 to 150 tons, locomotives provide passengers a large and hefty buffer in accidents.

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But putting the locomotives at the rear can make economic sense. By pulling trains one way and pushing the other, railroads avoid the costly and time-consuming practice of rearranging cars at the end of the line.

Some experts are reluctant to draw broad conclusions from the Glendale accident, noting that a confluence of highly improbable factors -- everything from the split-second timing of trains to the size of an engine block inside a 1992 Jeep Cherokee astride the tracks -- transformed what might have been a nonfatal crash into a multi-train wreck that killed 11 people and injured 180 others.

“After decades in the railroad industry, I have only seen one other case where three trains were involved in a single accident, and those were all freight trains,” said Paul Bodner, a Florida rail safety consultant and former federal railroad investigator. “This Glendale accident will never happen again. It was as remote as hitting the lottery.”

Other experts dispute that view. They say the accident reinforces concerns about the safety of pushing passenger trains with a locomotive in the rear, as was done on the southbound Metrolink No. 100, the first to crash and derail in Glendale.

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In push mode, the train is controlled from a cab car, which is a passenger coach at the front of the train with an engineer’s station. Some commuters refer to them derisively as “coffin cars.”

“This latest accident has raised the question: ‘Is what we are doing adequate,’ ” said Alan Bing, a safety expert at ICF, a national transportation consulting firm. “It is generally regarded as safe, but accidents like this one do raise a concern.”

Even before the Glendale wreck, Metrolink had the third-highest death rate per passenger mile traveled, according to Federal Railroad Administration figures.

The death rates, which cover the period from 1995 to 2004, place Metrolink only slightly better than commuter lines in Maryland and northern Indiana, which ranked worst in the nation. When the Glendale accident is factored in, Metrolink will almost certainly have the highest death rate.

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Metrolink officials say the federal statistics distort their record, adding that they must contend with many more freight trains and road crossings than other systems. They say the system’s three fatal accidents were each caused by others violating the law or federal regulations.

In addition, Metrolink officials say the Federal Railroad Administration figures are not appropriate indicators of safety because the data are not statistically meaningful.

But 16 of the nation’s commuter rail lines have not had a single passenger fatality. Passenger railroads on average are almost as safe as airlines and 20 times safer than automobiles, according to the National Safety Council.

Few rail safety experts deny that trains pulled by heavy locomotives are less likely to derail in head-on collisions and jackknife as occurred in the Glendale accident.

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In Glendale, “the chances would have been much better with an engine,” said Tom Rubin, a transportation consultant and former risk manager for the Southern California Rapid Transit District. “We need to know more. But all things being equal, I would like a big, heavy locomotive up front.”

Commuter rail officials from across the country defend their use of cab cars, which have provided hundreds of millions of miles of accident-free travel since the late 1950s. Today, about 20 commuter rail systems rely on push operations to operate economically.

“It is a safe practice,” said Robert Mowry, general manager of the Maryland Transit Administration, which experienced a wreck involving a cab car that killed 11 in 1996. “Every single commuter rail line in the U.S. and Canada uses push-pull operations. If they are all doing it, it must be safe.”

But after the Maryland system’s accident in 1996 and another fatal accident a week earlier in New Jersey, the Federal Railroad Administration issued an emergency safety order to review some aspects of push operations and the safety of putting passengers in lead cars.

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“Occupants of cab cars may incur a significantly higher risk of serious injury when compared with occupants of a locomotive-hauled [train], if the cab car collides with a heavier rail vehicle or any highway or rail vehicle transporting hazardous materials,” the Federal Railroad Administration concluded in its safety order.

The agency never restricted the practice of operating trains in push mode, and today each commuter line is allowed to determine many of its own practices, speed limits and safety measures.

In 1999, the Federal Railroad Administration did issue tougher crash standards for cab cars, requiring, for example, structural posts on the outside corners of cab cars that are designed to withstand hitting a 41,000-pound rigid object at up to 15 mph. Earlier standards had required that cab cars withstand crashes up to 11 mph.

But the rules apply only to cars built after 2002. Cars not up to standard but already in use were grandfathered in. Because passenger coaches last 30 years or more, it will be decades before the 1999 improvements are fully implemented.

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The Metrolink cars in the Glendale crash were built before 1999 and do not meet the tougher standards, said agency spokeswoman Denise Tyrrell. But even if they met all of the 1999 rules, it is not clear how many deaths and injuries could have been prevented.

And despite the Federal Railroad Administration’s 1996 safety order, no one ever conducted a comprehensive examination of push-pull operations, says the American Public Transportation Assn., a trade group representing the public transit industry, including commuter rail systems.

“There is no central data repository that says this accident was a pushing operation and that accident was a pulling operation,” said Greg Hull, the group’s director for operations, safety and security. “We know it anecdotally.”

After the Glendale accident, Metrolink and the Federal Railroad Administration have said that they continue to believe in the safety of cab cars. “There is no evidence to indicate that pull operations are necessarily safer than push operations,” the Federal Railroad Administration said in a statement to The Times.

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Indeed, the agency noted that in 1999, an Amtrak train pulled by a locomotive in front struck a big rig hauling steel in Bourbonnais, Ill., resulting in a derailment that killed 11 people.

But the agency also said it is now “conducting a fresh review” of the matter. In recent weeks, Metrolink cordoned off seats in the front rows of its cab cars, saying it was a prudent safety measure. And in the past, some commuter lines have warned passengers about the risks of sitting in cab cars, according to Federal Railroad Administration documents.

Investigations into the accident are underway by Metrolink, the Federal Railroad Administration, National Transportation Safety Board and Glendale Police Department.

The NTSB will examine cab car crashworthiness while Metrolink and the Federal Railroad Administration will draft their own accident evaluations.

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Glendale police detectives are conducting a homicide investigation against Juan Manuel Alvarez, 25, who parked his sport utility vehicle in front of the approaching Metrolink train.

The train hit the SUV and derailed, hit an idle freight train and then collided with another Metrolink train going in the opposite direction.

The inquiries will come under close scrutiny.

“I want to get to the bottom of the issue of whether pushing a train has an impact on safety,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Pasadena), whose district includes Glendale. “Are we compromising the safety of the public? I haven’t seen an adequate answer.”

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An examination of Metrolink’s accident records also shed some light on the issue. The railroad’s accidents involving cab cars at the front, including the Glendale disaster, have killed 15 passengers and injured more than 330, records show. Crashes involving locomotives in front, though more numerous, have killed no passengers and injured 25.

The Times reviewed all of the 44 Metrolink accident reports from 2000 to the present that involved head-on collisions with motor vehicles and other trains. Earlier crash reports have been destroyed under Metrolink’s policy of keeping records for five years.

The available records show that in the vast majority of cases, accidents did not result in derailments or injuries on board the train regardless of whether a cab car or a locomotive was in front. But a closer look at the six Metrolink accidents that resulted in deaths or injuries of passengers since the line opened in 1992 clearly demonstrates that the most serious risks to passengers occur in trains being pushed.

Of the six major crashes, four involved cab cars in front, three of which derailed after striking motor vehicles. In an Orange County crash three years ago, a cab car was crumpled when it was struck head-on at 23 mph by a freight train. Three passengers died and 141 were injured. The freight train crew walked away.

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In contrast, there were two Metrolink accidents involving locomotives in front, none involving passenger fatalities. One of those derailed -- when it struck the back of a freight train in Fullerton. Nineteen passengers were hurt in that accident. In another crash, a locomotive struck a tractor-trailer carrying a huge oil condenser unit at more than 70 mph, injuring six onboard. The train did not derail.

George Gavalla, former safety chief at the Federal Railroad Administration, is part of a large group of experts who say it would be a mistake to impose tougher crash standards or forbid push operations in the passenger rail industry.

“It is common sense that if you have a head-on collision, you would be better off in a train with a locomotive to absorb the collision forces,” Gavalla said. “But is it that much safer? Not really. The most effective strategy is to prevent accidents.”

Tougher standards would cause passenger fares to rise and result in more people using less safe highways, the industry’s defenders say.

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Gavalla and others argue that investments in rail safety would be better spent on such things as electronic collision warning devices and new technology that would notify train engineers of debris and motor vehicles on the tracks.

One approach to eliminating cab cars is to turn trains around at terminus points, so that locomotives are always in front. Rail agencies argue that reorienting trains causes delays that passengers would find unacceptable.

In addition, many agencies, including Metrolink, lack the special Y-shaped track needed to turn around trains in many stations and could have problems building such tracks even if they wanted to.

“The larger issue is not the millions of dollars it would take to build them, but the land availability,” said David Solow, chief executive of Metrolink.

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Some passenger lines, such as the 77-mile Caltrain system in the Bay Area, have agreements that restrict freight trains during peak commute times to reduce the possibility of collisions. By contrast, Metrolink shares its corridors with an average of 60 freight trains a day.

The only way to avoid accidents like the one in Glendale, said Michael McGinley, Metrolink’s engineering director, is to provide the same level of security on railroad rights of way as airport runways. That would mean building bridges or underpasses at every rail crossing and security fences along 512 miles of the system’s track.

To build overpasses or underpasses on the 450 railroad crossings in Metrolink’s service area would cost roughly $6 billion, according to official estimates, an expense that would have to be borne by local governments.

“Nobody has that kind of money,” said Hull of the American Public Transportation Assn. “There are no areas in the U.S. where rights of ways are secured.”

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Although it may not be possible to seal off rail corridors, Solow said he wants to reexamine all of Metrolink’s grade crossings and has set a goal to reduce accidents with motor vehicles.

A range of other, less costly, ideas has been suggested over the years to reduce the risk of push operations, such as warning passengers to avoid sitting in cab cars and using locomotives at both ends of trains.

Locomotives cost about $3.5 million each, meaning Metrolink would have to spend upwards of $140 million to put an extra locomotive in every train. With an annual budget of $280 million, largely subsidized by government, such an expense might not be practical.

“I could do a lot of grade-crossing improvements for $3.5 million, and a locomotive in front does not mean grade-crossing accidents won’t happen,” Solow said. “I want to reduce grade-crossing accidents.”

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Times staff writers Doug Smith and Caitlin Liu contributed to this report.


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