Expo Line junction design flaw prompts inspection order

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State safety regulators have ordered stringent inspections of a downtown Los Angeles rail junction for the newly opened Expo Line because of a serious design flaw that poses an increased risk of train derailments.

Officials of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority insist the intersection of the region’s newest light rail service and the older Long Beach Blue Line at Washington Boulevard and Flower Street is safe for now because of small modifications to the tracks.

But the junction — several blocks south of the multilevel underground Metro Center station at 7th and Figueroa — has presented significant safety issues and requires a special inspection program because of “non-standard” repairs made in an effort correct the problem, said Michelle Cooke, who oversees the California Public Utilities Commission’s rail safety unit.

PHOTOS: Expo Line

The extra inspections, which will continue indefinitely, were a condition of commission approvals to open the first 7.9 miles of Expo Line last month.

“So far, we have confidence in it,” Cooke said.

MTA records show the junction as built is defective and presents potential maintenance and safety issues, including a heightened risk that southbound Blue Line trains could derail in the sharply curving intersection — or elsewhere along their route — because of equipment damage. About 140 trains trips a day are made on the Blue Line, one of the nation’s busiest light rail systems with 26 million riders annually.

The junction with its tight turn is a design that has never before been approved for MTA’s passenger rail operations. The track intersection also does not conform to standards recommended by a national rail engineering group that sets design and construction guidelines for the industry.

In late 2010, MTA officials urged the Expo Line’s independent construction authority to replace the junction because it was causing excessive wear to rails and to wheel assemblies of Blue Line cars.

Rebuilding the section could cost at least $1 million, officials said, and would disrupt Blue Line service while the work was being done. The MTA backed off its recommendation to replace the junction after several less costly modifications were made to better guide train wheels through the intersection.

MTA and Expo officials say the results are encouraging and that abnormal wear of tracks and rail cars appears to have stopped. But officials say it’s not clear if the fixes — which include thickening a small portion of track and lengthening rail guides — will be a permanent solution.

“We believe we’ve solved the safety issues,” said Vijay Khawani, the MTA’s executive officer of corporate safety. “If we see trends that are negative, we will notify the Public Utilities Commission and identify a plan to address those problems.”

However, Nortrak, the manufacturer that supplied the track layout according to the Expo authority’s specifications, reminded the MTA in writing earlier this year that it does not approve of the modifications and recommends — as it did almost two years ago — that the junction be redesigned and rebuilt.

Nortrak officials said they plan to elaborate on their concerns at a later time.

The troublesome junction could, at least theoretically, increase the odds of a derailment should it contribute to a wheel failure or cause a train to jump the tracks at the Washington Boulevard turn, records show.

The $932-million Expo Line was built by a separate construction authority with assistance and funding from the MTA, which now has responsibility for operating and maintaining the system.

The project has a long history of disputes and legal actions over safety. Its grand opening was delayed by almost two years because of construction challenges, additions to the project and a prolonged fight over precautions at a street crossing next to Dorsey High School. The changes and problems increased the cost by almost $300 million.

“It’s the classic MTA-Expo mentality,” said Damien Goodmon of FixExpo, a community group that helped to win improvements at Dorsey. “They don’t really fix the problems. They don’t really get at the underlaying safety issues. The repair sounds Mickey Mouse.”

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, a member of the Expo authority board as well as the MTA board, said he and other board members had not been informed about the junction problems by transit officials. He said he plans to call for a hearing.

Transit officials first noticed problems at Washington and Flower in June 2010, a few months after Blue Line trains began using the new junction. According to MTA records, rails were not properly aligned, causing rail car wheels to slide or move more than normal. The unusual movement was causing excessive wear to a key part of the tracks, as well as to train wheel assemblies.

“The wear is becoming unacceptable,” wrote Wyman Jones, an MTA supervising engineer, in an internal memo. The contractor who did the work should have identified and resolved the problem before installing the junction, he wrote. Memos indicate that they could have done some pre-assembly that could have identified the problem.

MTA and Expo officials sought to solve the problem by welding more steel to one section of rail, creating a bulb of metal that would help reduce the abnormal movement of wheel assemblies. A strongly worded MTA memo dated Nov. 18, 2010, expressed skepticism about the repair and recommended that the junction be replaced.

As a precaution, southbound Blue Line trains were ordered at the time to stop before proceeding through the junction at a reduced speed of 5 mph.

If normal speeds of 10 mph are resumed through the junction, the wheel damage “becomes real and could lead to a major derailment somewhere on the Metro Blue Line,” wrote Michael Harris-Gifford, then deputy executive officer of wayside systems at MTA. He noted that there were even signs of wear at 5 mph.

The problems persisted at least until July 2011, when the junction was discussed in a meeting of officials from the MTA, the Expo construction authority and the state Public Utilities Commission.

Since then, MTA and Expo officials said they have fine-tuned their corrections. Trains are now moving through the junction at about 7 to 8 mph, they added, and there has been no new evidence of excessive wear to tracks or wheel assemblies.

“Final adjustments were made,” said Rick Thorpe, chief executive of the Expo construction authority. “From that period on, trains have been running without any issues. We’ve found a solution.”

Despite the intensified inspection requirements, Thorpe said there has been no public safety risk. “If there was, the trains wouldn’t have run.”

Officials of the Public Utilities Commission said they allowed the Expo Line to open because there have been no recent indications of problems. “But,” Cooke added, “we must satisfy ourselves that there will no longer be any excessive wear” before the agency can lift the inspection program.