In the latest fallout from last year’s Metrolink disaster, the Southern California commuter rail agency could begin directly hiring and managing its engineers and conductors next year, taking full responsibility for key tasks historically delegated to outside contractors.
The move, which officials say appears likely, comes after Metrolink’s relationship with the current provider of train crews, Connex Railroad, was soured by allegations of lax oversight. The company recently gave formal notice that it does not plan to extend its operating agreement.
The Metrolink board first raised the prospect of ending the agreement after the Chatsworth collision with a freight train, which killed 25 and injured 135.
Assuming direct control of train crews would mark a major change for Metrolink, a 17-year-old, five-county public agency that grew rapidly by relying largely on private firms for everything from maintaining rail cars to fixing signals.
But the mood shifted after the Chatsworth catastrophe, in which a Connex engineer who had been text-messaging on his cellphone drove Metrolink 111 head-on into a Union Pacific freight train. The Sept. 12 accident, which federal investigators say came after the Connex engineer ran a red light, has set off what could be one of costliest railroad liability court battles on record.
It also prompted disclosures that, in violation of safety regulations, the engineer sent and received hundreds of text messages while on duty in the days before the collision. Robert M. Sanchez, who died in the crash, also sneaked young rail enthusiasts into the control cabs of passenger trains for ride-alongs, investigators found. Metrolink ordered the removal of two company managers after the disclosures.
Connex has defended its safety and supervision record, saying it has an intensive field testing program that exceeds industry standards. In a recent letter declaring that it planned not to pursue a contract renewal, the company accused Metrolink of “finger-pointing.” The agency had embarked on a “self-serving and destructive course of litigation and public scapegoating that made adversaries of our two organizations and cooperation between us nearly impossible,” said the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Times.
“I think Connex just has a different view of public safety than we do,” said Metrolink board member Richard Katz. “Connex has consistently said they have a very good record of very few red light violations. Our view is, one is too many. Chatsworth was one red light violation, and 25 people died.”
Taking control of train operations offers opportunities for Metrolink to improve safety but adds new challenges and public accountability obligations. “If it’s brought in-house, now the buck stops directly at Metrolink,” said board President Keith Millhouse.
“That gets you greater control, which is something we would like. But at the same time there are tremendous responsibilities. I only want to see us bring it in-house if we have qualified people diligently overseeing the operation.”
Some experienced Connex crew members could be hired, the board members said, but they would have to meet strict standards.
As a practical matter, the chances of getting a new operator would be limited. There are few major railroad contractors in the field today. And despite recent and planned Metrolink safety improvements, after the Chatsworth crash, Southern California operations may be less appealing to bidders, officials said.
Negotiating union contracts, providing supervision and trying to keep costs near current outlays all are issues the board will weigh in coming weeks. Still, bringing train crews in-house appears to be a logical next step for an agency that now carries more than 1 million boarders a year across a 512-mile network reaching from Oxnard and Riverside to northern San Diego County, officials say.
“Contracting out served the agency well when it was much smaller, when it had fewer customers,” said Katz. “Where the system is today, and the role the system plays, is much different. It essentially is growing up, and it calls for a different kind of management.”
Direct train crew management would build on other post-Chatsworth improvements, including placing video cameras in locomotives, equipping trains and track with high-tech collision avoidance systems and hiring additional inspectors, said Millhouse.
Some riders may need more convincing.
“It seems apparent that Connex was wholly inadequate and unable or unwilling to run its trains in a safe manner,” said passenger Judy Reel, a lawyer for the city of Los Angeles who was injured in the Chatsworth crash. But Metrolink, she said, has never directly responded to issues about interior safety design that she expressed at two agency board meetings.
For her, that “raises concerns about their ability and willingness to run the trains in a safe manner.”
A Metrolink spokeswoman said Reel’s issues would be addressed when new passenger cars start arriving next month. In general, the spokeswoman said, the agency “is very responsive to all the concerns of its passengers.”