Metrolink woes: Let us count the ways

Metrolink, Southern California’s beleaguered commuter rail service, likes to bill itself as one of America’s fastest-growing public transit agencies. These days, its charter might just as well be called the tort lawyers’ full employment act.

After last week’s Chatsworth disaster in which 25 people died and 135 were hurt, The Times’ Steve Hymon reported that “Metrolink has amassed the most fatalities among commuter railroads of similar size in the United States over the last decade.” Over the last nine years, 74 people have been killed in incidents involving Metrolink.

Only New Jersey Transit, which carries five times as many people over six times the distance, has suffered more fatalities over that period -- 79. Much larger commuter rail systems -- the Long Island Rail Road, Chicago’s Metra and the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority -- have markedly better safety records.


Something is wrong here in Southern California -- but what?

Some of the problem seems to originate on the agency’s board, where a culture of alibi and denial appears to have taken hold. For example, Keith Millhouse, the vice chairman of the Metrolink board of directors, told The Times this week that the casualty toll is “unfortunately misleading. I don’t think you can necessarily say or draw conclusions that these numbers necessarily reflect Metrolink’s safety record.”

Really? Then what do they reflect?

If no one had died or been injured on Millhouse’s trains over the last decade, would it be wrong to say Metrolink had a perfect safety record? Precisely what sort of evidence would allow us to draw conclusions? If numbers won’t do, on what are we supposed to rely -- tarot cards?

At various times, Metrolink officials have tried to place the blame for its abysmal safety record on the fact that the 512-mile system, cobbled together from existing rail lines in the early 1990s, forces commuters to share track with freight lines. However, all but a handful of commuter systems share track with freight trains across the nation. The Metrolink system may also have the nation’s largest number of grade crossings -- intersections with city streets on which cars travel. Still, Chicago’s Metra has had more fatalities at grade crossings over the last nine years than has Metrolink.

Part of the problem may derive from Metrolink’s sprawling system of governance. The system’s 11-member voting board consists of representatives of L.A. County’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority as well as directors from the Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura County transportation authorities. Each county funds service in its territory with sales taxes collected there.

Structurally, it’s a formula for unfocused supervision and for operation on the cheap. It’s hard not to believe that the latter hasn’t had something to do with Metrolink’s resistance to adopting new -- but expensive -- technologies that would prevent the sort of deadly collisions that occurred in Chatsworth and in Placentia, where two people were killed in 2002.

Though they’re already being employed in parts of the Northeast, Metrolink officials say some of the new technologies are too unproven and too expensive. Moreover, they argue, the situation here is complicated by the fact that their trains and the freight lines use different radio frequencies.

Right. And we can’t buy new radios because ... ?

Finally, there’s the question of who actually operates Metrolink’s trains. For its first 16 years, Metrolink contracted with Amtrak to run its service. In July 2005, it dropped that agency and hired the French multinational Veolia to operate its trains. The engineer who was driving the Chatsworth train was a Veolia employee working a split shift that had him reporting for duty at 5:54 a.m., working until 9:26 a.m., and then returning for a second tour that began at 2 p.m. and ran until 9 p.m.

How’s that for a dangerous working arrangement?

Veolia is currently a defendant in a federal court lawsuit in Los Angeles -- a suit that predates the Chatsworth crash -- alleging that it denies its workers rest breaks and overtime pay. Similar suits are being litigated in seven other states.

Sometimes, the lowest bidder isn’t a bargain.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa took a major step toward addressing the problem this week when he named former assemblyman and transportation consultant Richard Katz to the Metrolink board. So too the county’s Board of Supervisors, when it called for increased funding for a variety of safety measures.

Southern California can’t afford to let Metrolink drift any further.