Safety panel is in at Metrolink

LOS ANGELES — The Metrolink Board of Directors on Tuesday appointed an 11-member independent review panel to investigate possible deficiencies in the rail agency’s operations and then report back with the “unvarnished truth.”

The panel — which includes a mix of industry professionals, academic experts and transit advocates from across the nation — is scheduled to return to the board in two months with a list of recommendations for how Metrolink can improve the safety of its roughly 350 miles of rail lines.

“Their review of the railroads will be what it is: good, bad or indifferent,” board Vice Chairman Keith Millhouse said at the meeting Tuesday.

The panel’s independent review of the rail agency will be separate from that of the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into the cause of the Sept. 12 Chatsworth crash, in which a Metrolink passenger train collided head-on with a southbound Union Pacific freighter after running a red light. The wreck resulted in 25 deaths and left 135 others injured.

Roosevelt Middle School counselor Ron Grace was among those killed in the crash, as was La Crescenta resident Robert Sanchez, the Metrolink train’s engineer.

Three workers in Burbank also died in the collision: 59-year-old Public Works mechanic Alan Buckley; Walter Fuller, 54, a traffic control manager at Bob Hope Airport; and Dean Brower, 51, an employee at the city’s water reclamation plant.

In response to questioning from Glendale City Councilman and fellow board member Ara Najarian, Millhouse assured the entire board that the panel would be independent and unconstrained in their recommendations, no matter the cost.

“It’s up to them, not to us,” said board member Ron Katz, who chose the panelists with Millhouse.

The Metrolink Commuter Rail Safety Peer Review Panel was given broad authority to review a range of issues — including hiring and training policies, employee mental evaluations, existing service provider contracts, safety protocols, equipment maintenance and communications — and do so under a tight schedule of reporting deadlines.

The first month will be spent collecting data, observing operations and conducting interviews, with the latter half of the time frame devoted to developing recommendations and drafting a report to the board of directors, according to the plan adopted Tuesday.

It was the latest in a series of developments over the past several days in response to the Chatsworth crash.

On Wednesday, the two major freight companies that share tracks with Metrolink — Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe — jointly announced their intent to install automatic-train-stopping technology on their rail lines by 2012.

The announcement came on the heels of a state hearing held the same day, in which Sen. Dianne Feinstein — who with Sen. Barbara Boxer was forced to compromise on a less-strict 2015 deadline in federal legislation approved by Congress on Oct. 1 — testified on the importance of implementing the “positive train control” system throughout the state’s rail system.

NTSB investigators said repeatedly in the days immediately following the Chatsworth crash that the collision would have been avoided had just one train been equipped with the system.

Positive-train-control systems use global positioning satellite technology and digital communications to automatically bring wayward trains to emergency stops.

Railroad companies have been slow to install the system, citing and the need to further test the technology before committing to price tags that are expected to reach into the tens of millions of dollars.

While waiting for the panel’s results, and an agreement on how to implement positive train control, Metrolink’s board of directors has made short-term changes to enhance rail safety, such as adding a second engineer to train cabins where possible.

The NTSB on Oct. 1 released preliminary findings that investigators said proved Sanchez was sending and receiving text messages up to 22 seconds before the collision, indicating that the Metrolink 111 engineer may have missed the red light while using his phone.

Metrolink and its staffing subcontractor, Veolia Transportation, have policies prohibiting engineers from using or even having their cellphones while inside the train’s cabin.

Gary Crary, assistant executive officer of operating services for Metrolink, told the board Tuesday that fulfilling a directive to have two engineers on nearly all of the agency’s trains carried significant “cost implications” that needed to be explored.

He also said the agency would be spending “throwaway” money on any interim effort to expand antiquated “automatic train control” devices throughout Metrolink’s rail system until the more advanced positive-train-control system was installed.

But Katz and other board members gave direction to move ahead with any and all interim measures, no matter the cost or how minor the safety benefit.

“I would not consider even a short-term improvement in safety a ‘throwaway, ’” Katz said.

Millhouse agreed, telling Metrolink executives to implement the safety measures without being weighed down by potential costs, citing support from the state’s congressional delegation.

“We’ll get the money, someway, somehow, somewhere,” he said.


 JASON WELLS covers City Hall. He may be reached at (818) 637-3235 or by e-mail at jason.wells@latimes.com.

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