Metrolink’s commitment to safety reforms comes under scrutiny

Within weeks of a commuter rail disaster in Chatsworth last fall, Metrolink engineers twice did the same thing that is suspected to have led to the deadly head-on collision with a freight train: They ran through red signal lights warning them to stop, records show.

Counting the Sept. 12 crash that killed 25 people and injured 135, the recent red-light violations exceeded the number of stop-signal mishaps reported over the previous two years, a Times review of internal records found.

“We’re very concerned,” Metrolink board member Richard Katz said. “One is too many. . . . It was only one in Chatsworth, and 25 people died.”

The incidents pose fresh questions about how seriously the five-county rail agency is confronting safety issues just as the National Transportation Safety Board gears up for a public hearing on Metrolink’s operations before the Chatsworth crash, the worst in modern California railroad history.

The proceedings, at which subpoenaed witnesses will be questioned under oath, begin Tuesday in Washington, D.C. The two-day session will zero in on track-side signal operations, how the agency enforced a ban against cellphone use by train operators, and federal and local requirements that engineers and conductors confirm by radio that they have seen signals.

The cluster of signal violations occurred during a time when representatives for Metrolink conductors were raising safety concerns with a top executive for Connex Railroad, the private firm that provides crew members to the commuter agency, according to internal records reviewed by The Times.

A spokeswoman for Connex said Sunday that the firm has among the lowest number of red-light violations in the rail industry.

“Red light violations happen in the rail industry, and we take them extremely seriously,” spokeswoman Erica Swerdlow said. “We continuously train and discipline our engineers appropriately.”

Metrolink train crews have come under intense scrutiny and stepped-up field testing since the Chatsworth catastrophe. Preliminary investigative findings show that the engineer in that accident, Robert M. Sanchez, had been text-messaging before he ran a red light and slammed into a Union Pacific freight train on a section of single shared track. Last week, The Times reported that text messages obtained by investigators indicate that Sanchez had sometimes also allowed teenage train enthusiasts to ride in his cab, another violation of rail safety policies.

Recent safety reforms put in place by Metrolink -- including adding a second conductor, in the cab -- were supposed to prevent the types of safety breakdowns suspected of contributing to the Chatsworth crash.

Yet operation records obtained by The Times show that two more signal violations occurred within weeks of the accident, even after some reforms had been put into effect. By comparison, only two signal violations were reported on the system in the more than 24 months between July 2006 and September 2008, records show.

Running a red light is “unbelievably hazardous” because of the potential for catastrophic accidents, said veteran passenger rail engineer Ron Kaminkow. The risk is amplified for Metrolink, he said, because it operates in urban areas and routinely shares sections of track with freight trains.

The first signal incident after the Chatsworth crash took place on Nov. 13, when a red light violation occurred on the Lancaster line.

The day after that violation, a union representative for Metrolink conductors sent an e-mail about morale problems and safety concerns to Ron Hartman, a senior vice president at Veolia Transportation. Its subsidiary, Connex, provides engineers and conductors for the commuter line.

“If you look at the sheer number of major incidents . . . it is easy to see there is a major problem,” wrote Ray Garcia, an official with the United Transportation Union. “I am seriously concerned that, unless there is a change in the culture at Connex/Metrolink it is just a matter of time before you have another tragedy.”

Six days later, a Metrolink train ran a red light in Rialto and sideswiped a freight train, injuring five passengers.

Garcia said in an interview that Hartman “never followed through” after Garcia’s e-mail.

Hartman disputed that, saying he and other managers are available to Garcia “any time and any day to discuss any remaining concerns that he has.” Union members join in monthly safety meetings, he said in an e-mail to The Times, and the union is aware of “our commitment to safety and the positive actions we have taken and continue to take.”

A more recent safety incident, which is under investigation, occurred Feb. 13 on the Riverside line. In that case, an engineer apparently did not slow down in a reduced-speed zone set up as part of a field test by Union Pacific Railroad, which shares the track with Metrolink.

A large, bright yellow board was placed along the track, requiring trains to slow to 10 mph and watch for an “emergency situation on the track” such as flooding or critical repairs, said Zoe Richmond, a Union Pacific spokeswoman. She declined to comment about Metrolink but noted that the tests are randomly placed and engineers and dispatchers may not be notified through normal channels. “You see that yellow board and you know something’s up, but you don’t know what that issue is,” she said.

Violations of such speed restrictions can lead to suspension of an engineer’s license. Metrolink spokesman Francisco Oaxaca said the exercise was part of “our enhanced joint testing program” in which the railroads test each other’s crews as they navigate different territories. It hasn’t yet been determined whether a violation occurred in the Feb. 13 case, he added.

A communication problem between the freight railroad dispatcher and Metrolink employees apparently led to a misunderstanding about what the engineer was required to do, said Metrolink board Chairman Keith Millhouse. It may be “a question of testing administration” and not engineer error, he said.

Rigorous testing is being conducted to increase safety, and in January alone Metrolink engineers were subjected to nearly 1,400 tests, officials said.

Millhouse said Metrolink is safe, but he noted that “a test doesn’t do any good if it’s not administered properly.”

If the most recent incident involves chiefly a communication problem, that won’t be “as bad as running a red light or not slowing down for a yellow,” Katz said.

“But it’s still a problem.”