Metrolink’s grim national record

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
Metrolink has amassed the most fatalities among commuter railroads of similar size in the United States over the last decade, a statistic boosted in part by three deadly train collisions in the past five years, according to federal reports.

Metrolink fatalities: An article in the Sept. 15 Section A reporting that Metrolink had the most fatalities in the country among urban commuter railroads underreported the total number of deaths for Metrolink and other rail systems. The figures in the article and accompanying chart, shown as the total number of deaths from 1999 through mid-September 2008, were for the first six months of each of those years. The full-year number of fatalities for Metrolink was 94, not 74. Analysis of the full-year figures shows the same pattern reported in the article -- that Metrolink’s record of fatalities per mile traveled is worse than that of other major commuter rail systems in the United States.

2006 Metrolink accident: An article on Metrolink’s safety record in Monday’s A section stated that Maureen Osborn was killed in 2006 when a Metrolink train struck her car in Glendale; the accident was in Burbank.

Cars and pedestrians at the 464 street-level crossings on Metrolink’s right of way are a key factor in the fatalities, but the agency also stands out from some counterparts in how much it shares tracks with freight trains.

The cause of Friday’s accident is yet to be determined, but investigators are focusing on a series of signals that should have warned the train’s engineer to wait for a freight train to move off a shared track west of Chatsworth.

From 1999 through June 30 of this year, 47 people died in incidents involving Metrolink trains, according to Federal Railroad Administration records. That number does not include the 25 people killed in Friday’s collision, the woman who died after her car was struck by a Metrolink train in Corona the same afternoon and a suicide by a pedestrian earlier this month. Those bring the total to at least 74 deaths.

The only commuter rail agency with more deaths than Metrolink is New Jersey Transit, whose trains travel six times as many miles as Metrolink trains on an annual basis and carry five times as many passengers. New Jersey Transit amassed at least 79 deaths through June 30. Since then, the railway has had at least one additional fatality, according to media reports.

Conversely, several larger commuter lines had fewer fatalities in the same time span. For example, the Chicago-area Metra trains, which last year traveled four times as many miles and carried seven times the number of passengers, had been involved in 59 fatalities from January 1999 through June, according to the data. Metra also suffered one fatality in a crash since then.

Other larger commuter rail agencies that have seen fewer fatalities than Metrolink include New York’s Long Island Rail Road, the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority that serves the Boston area and SEPTA, whose trains operate in the Philadelphia area.

“The figure I think is unfortunately misleading,” said Keith Millhouse, the vice chairman of the Metrolink board of directors. “I don’t think you can necessarily say or draw conclusions that these numbers necessarily reflect Metrolink’s safety record.”

He said the 11 deaths in the Glendale crash in 2005 were the “act of a convicted murderer” who parked his SUV on the track. And he pointed out that many of the other deaths were the result of people and cars trespassing on or crossing the tracks.

Federal records show that 20 people, most of them in vehicles, have been killed in accidents at street crossings with Metrolink trains since 1999. That is higher than other similar commuter rail agencies, except Metra, which had 22 such deaths. Metrolink is believed to have more grade crossings than similar railroads, particularly older established lines on the East Coast, where bridges and under-crossings are more common.

Metrolink also had a streak of multiple-fatality crashes in the last five years. In 2003, a freight train that failed to stop at a signal slammed into a Metrolink train in Placentia, killing three passengers. In 2005, 11 people died when a Metrolink train struck an SUV that had been deliberately parked on the tracks in Glendale, causing a collision with a second Metrolink train and a sidelined freight locomotive. The driver of the SUV was convicted of 11 counts of murder in June.

Warren Flatau, a Federal Railroad Administration spokesman, said that it’s difficult to compare commuter railroads because of their different sizes, operating environments and the nature of crashes.

He noted that the 2003 and 2005 accidents were not the fault of Metrolink. Although Flatau said that his agency was “not in the business of boosterism,” he praised Metrolink for being the first commuter rail agency to purchase train cars with technology to help them better absorb crashes. He also said Metrolink should be credited for trying to cordon off tracks from surrounding streets and neighborhoods.

Metrolink shares the majority of its 388 miles of track across six counties with freight trains. The rail service was stitched together by sharing agreements or by purchasing freight lines, often on the condition that freight haulers could keep using them. Service began in 1992.

Ross Capon, executive director of the National Assn. of Railroad Passengers, called Metrolink’s two previous crashes “plain bad luck.”

“When you create a commuter railroad service and you have lots of grade crossings and you have a lot of high speeds, and it’s a fairly new service, it’s not like Chicago where these trains have been running since the beginning of time,” he said. “I think that part of it is the populace getting accustomed to fast and frequent trains in places where they didn’t used to exist.”

Capon said that Friday’s accident should spur railroads to implement automated systems, known as positive train control, that can correct for human errors and stop trains before it’s too late.

“They always want to make it anybody’s fault beside their own,” said Ed Pfiester, a Los Angeles-based attorney who specializes in railroad litigation and was involved in lawsuits stemming from the 2003 crash and is representing passengers in the 2005 crash.

“I just don’t think they are managing it like they should in light of the kind of territory they run,” he added. “They need better surveillance and security on grade crossings.”

In 2006, a Metrolink train slammed into a car driven by Maureen Osborn, 76, killing her instantly near the intersection of Buena Vista Street and San Fernando Road in Glendale. Metrolink officials said Osborn was trying to beat the train.

The accident happened exactly three years after another at the same crossing, when a train hit a truck stopped on the tracks -- killing the driver and a train passenger.

Osborn’s son Jim has long argued that his mother wasn’t trying to race the train but was confused by the combination of traffic signals and railroad crossing lights in the area.

He believes Metrolink often shifts blame to motorists, ignoring more fundamental problems.

“Because my mom made a mistake, she’s dead,” said Osborn, an engineer who lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. “Metrolink doesn’t fix problems. They leave them alone and let them grow into big problems.”

Railroad deaths

Number of reported fatalities from all causes (auto collisions, pedestrians hit, yard accidents, derailments, etc.) on major commuter rail systems from 1999 to Saturday:

Railroad, location: (Miles in 2007, in millions) Fatalities

Metra, Chicago (4.8): 60

New Jersey Transit (4.7): 80

Metro North, N.Y., Conn. (4.7): 22

Long Island Rail Road (4.2): 40

SEPTA, Philadelphia (2.6): 21

MBTA, Boston (2.0): 41

Tri-County, South Florida (1.7): 28

Metrolink (1.2): 74

Caltrain, Bay Area (0.7): 41

MARC, Maryland (0.6): 6


Source: Federal Railroad Administration, Times research.

Graphics reporting by Scott Wilson