In a change of course on a key safety initiative, Metrolink board members Friday voted to begin negotiations on a sole-source contract with Amtrak to provide train crews for the five-county commuter rail service starting next summer.
The action represents a change from June, when the board approved a plan to hire train engineers and conductors directly.
Given the safety improvements straining the rail agency's resources and Amtrak's experience and interest in providing train crews, board members unanimously agreed that negotiating a sole-source contract was the best option for maintaining operations.
The current operating agreement with Connex Railroad LLC, whose relationship with Metrolink deteriorated after last year's Chatsworth rail crash, would end in June, putting the rail agency under a tight deadline to resolve how the system would be run.
"We have a lot going on here," said board member Richard Katz, explaining his shift away from support for Metrolink hiring and supervising train crews directly. He said a series of other projects, including the development of a high-tech collision avoidance system, are also challenging the agency.
Another concern with employing train crews directly was that Metrolink would be required to negotiate labor pacts directly with railroad unions, which could lead to more cumbersome procedures for removing problem engineers and conductors. Board Chairman Keith Millhouse said the rail agency currently can order its operating and maintenance contractors to ban workers from its property.
Bringing train crews in-house had been seen as both a key reform and major task for Metrolink.
The collision in Chatsworth between Metrolink 111 and a freight train was the worst rail disaster in modern California history, killing 25 people and injuring 135. Investigators have said a Metrolink engineer working for Connex was text messaging on a cellphone about the time of the crash and apparently ran a red light, disclosures that prompted demands for greater oversight of train crews.
Board members said they want negotiations with Amtrak to move quickly. They agreed to keep open the option of bringing the train crews in-house if contract talks break down.
Key to those talks, officials said, would be securing agreements giving Metrolink the ability to make unannounced inspections of train crews and to use video cameras to monitor engineers in locomotive cabs.
Before 2005, Amtrak provided train crews and other operating services to Metrolink.