Panel Rejects Ban on Pushing Trains
State legislators Tuesday rejected a proposal to ban the practice of pushing passenger trains from the rear with locomotives -- a technique called into question after a Metrolink crash near Glendale killed 11 people in January 2005.
The Senate Committee on Housing and Transportation voted unanimously to defeat the measure by Assembly Majority Leader Dario Frommer (D-Glendale), who, based on state hearings last summer, considers push operations dangerous.
In push mode, a train is controlled from a cab car -- a passenger coach at the front of the train with an engineer’s station. A cab car weighs half as much as an engine.
The practice has come under intense scrutiny since the 2005 accident, which also injured 180 people. In that crash, a train led by a cab car struck a sport utility vehicle, derailed and hit two other trains.
Frommer’s bill would have required the state’s commuter railroads to close the first 10 rows of seats in cab cars and to stop pushing trains with locomotives by 2010. Instead, the committee approved an amended bill calling for UC Berkeley to perform a rail safety study that would include push operations.
Committee members said they wanted research that was independent of two studies by the Federal Railroad Administration. Those studies indicate that passengers in cab cars are more vulnerable in crashes, but that there was little difference in safety between pushed trains and trains pulled by locomotives.
“Committee members were not quite sure about all the information and statistics,” Frommer said. “When you look at what we know, an independent study could further the cause of limiting the push configuration. An independent study would be hard to ignore.”
Frommer noted that since 1992, Metrolink has had four major crashes involving push operations, resulting in 15 deaths and more than 300 injuries. In contrast, the line has had two major crashes of trains pulled by locomotives; 25 people were hurt and no one was killed.
Four commuter lines in California would have been affected: the Altamont Commuter Express and Caltrain in Northern California as well as the Coaster in San Diego County and Metrolink, which serves six Southland counties.
Rail officials and transit advocates told the committee that push operations have provided passengers with millions of miles of safe travel and should be allowed to continue. Banning the practice, they said, would force commuter railroads to purchase more locomotives or install track configurations so trains can be turned around at the end of a line, both costly options.
“We have faith in our operations. We believe they are safe,” said Denise Tyrrell, a Metrolink spokeswoman.
She added that Metrolink has nothing to fear from further study. If it relates to safety and is conducted properly, she said, the railroad will welcome it.
Since the 2005 crash, Metrolink has banned seating in the front third of cab cars. The line is also involved in programs to eliminate dangerous railroad crossings and recently purchased 87 passenger coaches with the latest safety measures.