11-member panel named to study Metrolink safety

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

In the wake of the devastating Chatsworth train crash last month, Metrolink’s board Friday appointed an 11-member panel of industry experts to take a comprehensive look at the commuter rail’s safety and operating procedures.

The group, composed of people from industry and academia and a passenger advocate, is supposed to issue a draft report in 60 days. Improvements that can be made more quickly are expected to be forwarded to Metrolink in seven to 10 days.

“It is healthy for us and the public to have a transparent, independent and thorough analysis of the organization to make sure everything is being done at the highest level,” said Metrolink board Vice President Keith Millhouse, a Moorpark city councilman who selected members of the Metrolink Commuter Rail Safety Peer Review Panel along with board member Richard Katz.

In the Sept. 12 accident, a Metrolink train failed to heed a warning light and crashed head-on into a Union Pacific freight train. Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board say that just before the crash, the engineer of Metrolink 111 was sending and receiving text messages on his cellphone. Twenty-five people died and 135 were injured in the most deadly rail accident in recent state history.

The board also approved a review of Metrolink’s emergency preparedness and crisis communications plans.

Since the crash, the board has pushed for a number of safety measures, including an automatic braking system and a video camera system to monitor locomotive crews. About two weeks ago, the railroad began using a second engineer, conductor or trainmaster in some trains.

Gray Crary, a Metrolink executive, told the board Friday that the commuter line has been placing two employees in the cabs on an average of 25 trips a day. Metrolink trains make 145 trips a day in Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties, rail spokesman Francisco Oaxaca said.

The railroad has been concentrating its two-person cabs on lines it shares with freight trains, such as the one in Chatsworth.

Crary said putting a second person in the cab would become more difficult over the holidays because of special trains and vacations. Those filling the slots have come from Metrolink’s pool of employees normally used to replace primary engineers and conductors who are on vacation, sick or in training. When those employees were not running trains, they performed administrative work or collected fares.

As a long-term solution, Crary said, Metrolink could push for quicker hiring of engineers scheduled for expanded service in Orange County. He said six engineers could be ready for “extra eye” service in February, several months before they would be needed in Orange County.

“You get as many people in the cab as possible,” Millhouse said. “We’ll get the money.”

Board President Ron Roberts, a Temecula city councilman, said that when he was in Washington recently, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer was adamant about placing a second engineer on the trains as soon as possible.

“She said, ‘I know it’s expensive, but we have grants we can help you with,’ ” he recalled.

The panel will be headed by Peter Cannito, ex-president of Metro-North Railroad in New York, and Don Sepulveda of HNTB Corp., an international architecture, transportation and engineering company based in Kansas City, Mo.

The panel’s facilitator will be Linda Bohlinger, vice president and national director of management consulting for HNTB. Bohlinger is the former interim chief executive of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

According to a Metrolink memo, Bohlinger helped start the commuter railway when she was an MTA employee, working to purchase the railroad right-of-way, negotiate all the funding agreements with the five counties and secure the initial grants.

HNTB has had city contracts for $35 million of work at Los Angeles International and Ontario airports. According to a memo from Steve Wylie, a Metrolink assistant executive, HNTB is also an approved subcontractor to a firm that holds one of the three general engineering contracts with Metrolink. “As this contract has only recently been issued, HNTB has no currently authorized work with [Metrolink], and thus is ideally situated to support an independent review.”