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‘Push’ doesn’t satisfy reps

Robert Chacon

The deadliness of a Jan. 26 Metrolink crash was not a result of the

passenger train being pushed from behind, but rather because it

crashed into a freight train on neighboring tracks, a top Metrolink

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official testified Wednesday before a legislative committee on rail

safety.

Chief Executive Officer David Solow told the Assembly Special

Committee on Rail Safety that instead of resorting to placing a

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locomotive car at the front of trains full time, other safety

measures could be more effective in reducing the prospect of another

crash and the number of fatalities if one were to occur again.

Trains could be made safer by reinforcing the front of train cars,

fitting new cars with impact-absorbing materials, reconfiguring the

interior of cab cars and sealing railway corridors from railway

traffic, Solow said.

The hearing at Glendale’s Central Library Wednesday was called by

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Assemblyman Dario Frommer, chairman of the special committee formed

after the January Metrolink crash to investigate the safety of

passenger trains in California.

The committee, which includes assembly members Rudy Bermudez,

Dennis Mountjoy, Karen Bass, Joe Coto, Jenny Oropeza and Sharon

Runner, is also charged with reviewing transportation agencies’

practice of propelling trains down tracks with a locomotive car at

the rear of the trains. Coto, Frommer, Mountjoy and Bermudez attended

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the hearing Wednesday.

Eleven people were killed in the Jan. 26 crash near Chevy Chase

Drive and 200 were injured.

The Metrolink passenger train that was heading south hit a Jeep

Cherokee, derailed and collided with another passenger train heading

in the opposite direction on neighboring tracks was being pushed by

an engine at the rear, a practice for which the agency has come under

fire by victims and family members of the passengers killed in the

crash. The southbound train ricocheted into a parked freight train,

which caused many of the fatalities, Solow said.

The crash occurred after Juan Manuel Alvarez, 25, allegedly parked

his Jeep Cherokee on the tracks and doused it with gasoline in an

apparent suicide attempt, then abandoned his vehicle before the train

hit, police said. Alvarez has pleaded not guilty to arson and 11

counts of murder.

In numerous lawsuits and claims filed against the agency,

Metrolink has been urged to stop pushing trains from the rear.

Wednesday’s hearing was a chance for Metrolink to present its side

of the facts, but also gave victims a forum to air concerns. A host

of other federal, state and local agencies, including Glendale Fire

and Police departments, also testified in the hearing on issues as

varied as what can be done to make railways safer to the

configuration of the interior of passenger cars.

In a move critics called window-dressing, Metrolink in February

prohibited passengers from sitting in the upper level of the front

car on some trains as a safety precaution stemming from the Jan. 26

collision.

Officials from the California Department of Transportation, Public

Utilities Commission, Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and the

California Transit Assn. also testified during the four-hour hearing.

Glendale Police Chief Randy Adams Fire Battalion Chief Don Wright

provided testimony as well.

But it was the family members of those killed in the crash that

provided the most poignant moments of the day.

Caressing a portrait of her late husband, Don Wiley, Lien Wiley

spoke to the panel.

“Since the crash, my life has been shattered,” she told the

committee. “I feel that the Metrolink crash should never have

happened. Please help us do whatever it takes to protect the

innocent.”

Wiley and other victims suggested several changes in order to make

passenger trains safer, including banning the pushing of trains,

installing automatic gates at rail crossings that would prohibit cars

from entering rail property, installing monitoring technology that

would warn train engineers of obstacles in their path and installing

breaking mechanisms that could stop a train quicker.

Committee member Assemblyman Dennis Mountjoy, who seemed

unconvinced throughout the hearing on the safety of Metrolink’s

method of driving trains, repeatedly asked rail officials if they

would feel safer on trains that are pushed or pulled during a crash.

Among the heaps of statistical and anecdotal data presented at the

hearing by officials, two crash test films were played by former

attorney Paul Hedlund.

In one film that showed a locomotive colliding with a cab car, the

locomotive car tears through cab car, tossing it up in the air and

off the tracks.

For Frommer, at least, the film provided the most compelling

evidence that lawmakers need to continue challenging rail officials’

assertions that trains that are pulled are just as likely to derail

as trains that are pushed, a conclusion of a Federal Rail

Administration report released earlier this month.

“That video is pretty convincing that these cab cars are pretty

dangerous,” Frommer said. “I am unconvinced that pushing trains is

safe.”

That pushing trains is more dangerous than having a locomotive at

the front is just common sense, Mountjoy said after the hearing.

“Despite the fact that there is little statistical significance

between the two, it’s just plain common sense that having a cab car

at the front is more dangerous,” Mountjoy said, adding that he would

support or introduce legislation requiring agencies that run

passenger trains to comply, or forcing them to turn trains around so

that an engine is always at the front.

The committee is going to review information gathered at the

hearing, and will look at Michigan and Ohio’s laws prohibiting

pushing trains, before issuing a decision or order, Frommer said.


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