Pushing Trains Is Not Unsafe, Study Finds

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Times Staff Writer

Pulling commuter trains with a locomotive in front rather than pushing them from behind might not have saved lives in the Metrolink crash near Glendale 18 months ago, according to a federal study released Monday.

The Federal Railroad Administration report further concluded that there is little difference in safety between passenger trains pushed by locomotives and those that are pulled. Researchers noted, however, that more people have died in accidents involving pushed trains.

“Both intercity passenger and commuter rail service are very safe and are becoming safer,” the 75-page report stated. “They are much safer than personal motor vehicles.”


The Jan. 26, 2005, crash, in which 11 people were killed and 180 injured, involved a Metrolink train in push mode, with a locomotive at the rear and a lighter passenger car in front equipped with an engineer’s station.

The leading passenger coach, loaded with commuters, just after 6 a.m. struck a Jeep Cherokee on the tracks and derailed. The train then hit a freight locomotive parked on a siding and sideswiped another Metrolink train passing on a nearby track.

The study disputes safety experts, legislators and attorneys in pending civil lawsuits who contend that Metrolink’s practice of pushing trains is dangerous and may have contributed to the accident’s severity.

They questioned the report’s lack of computer modeling on critical issues, as well as the study’s timing: It arrived on the eve of a committee vote in the state Senate on whether to ban push operations in California. Metrolink and other commuter rail lines have been lobbying against the measure, which is scheduled for a vote today.

“The assumptions in the report are faulty,” said Assemblyman Dario Frommer (D-Glendale), who drafted the legislation. “You still have more deaths involving push operations.”

In the wake of the crash, Congress -- at the urging of Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) -- asked the railroad administration to study the safety of push operations nationwide.


Researchers found that between 1996 and 2005, out of 219 trains in push mode involved in grade-crossing accidents, four derailed, including the Metrolink train. Out of 290 trains in pull mode involved in such accidents, two derailed.

The difference in derailment rates is slightly more than one percentage point, which researchers described as “very small.” The finding backs earlier agency research released in July.

“This not only confirms my belief in cab car safety, but the process we are taking to ensure safety -- crash avoidance and crashworthiness,” said David Solow, Metrolink’s chief executive. “Our goal is to avoid a crash before it occurs.”

The study found that 27 people have died in accidents involving trains pushed by locomotives and 22 have died in crashes involving trains being pulled.

The study concluded that a train pulled by a locomotive would have had fewer deaths than the train that struck the SUV in the Metrolink crash. But, the study indicates, there would have been more fatalities aboard the sideswiped train because a locomotive is larger than a cab car and more rigid.

For the Metrolink analysis, researchers assumed that a locomotive-led train would derail upon impact with the sport utility vehicle because the vehicle was straddling the rails and had its tires in the track bed.


Frommer, Schiff and attorneys for dozens of the injured as well as relatives of those killed in the crash say that is a critical weakness in the federal study.