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Controls to curb rail crashes may be years off
Published: September 16, 2008
Source: Associated Press
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LOS ANGELES — Federal officials said Monday that it could take five years or more to put an early-warning system in place across the country to prevent the kind of rail collision that killed 25 people here Friday and left more than 130 injured.

The accident, a head-on rush-hour collision between a Union Pacific freight train and a Metrolink commuter train in the San Fernando Valley, has revived demands for “positive train control.”

That is a catch-all term for systems that use satellites, transponders and other devices to track trains and automatically stop them if they ignore red lights or encounter other trouble. Those systems are in limited use, on 240 miles of track including high-speed sections of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, and are undergoing tests on an additional 2,600 miles of track in 16 states.

Metrolink said it used an automatic emergency braking system on a high-speed section of its tracks in suburban southern Orange County, but not on the segment where the crash occurred.

In news conferences, federal regulators described a highly technical, complex process to develop a more standardized system that could be used by the wide variety of passenger and freight railroads across the country. The delay in developing the system, they said, is attributable to factors like accounting for the varying weight, length and braking times of freight and passenger trains and ensuring that radio frequencies and communication devices work in different terrain and conditions.

The cost will be high, said Joseph H. Boardman, the administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, who acknowledged criticism — some of it from another federal agency, the National Transportation Safety Board — that such a system had taken so long to develop and put in place.

“We’re talking billions to get it coast to coast,” Mr. Boardman said. “We’re making progress. We’re moving, making steady progress, but it is not as fast as they would like and not as fast as we would like.”

Legislation is pending in Congress that would require large railroads to develop the systems by 2014. A sponsor of one bill, Representative James L. Oberstar, Democrat of Minnesota, said rail companies had been unwilling “to make the needed investments in safety” that would have allowed the technology to be fully adopted by now. But railroads have said the systems are yet to be perfected and require additional testing.

Kitty Higgins, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the accident, said Monday that an early-warning system could have prevented the crash here, based on a preliminary review of the evidence.

Although investigators have not determined the speed of the Union Pacific train or precisely how far apart the two trains were when the Metrolink train passed the signal, she said her understanding of positive train control and a general idea of the distances lead her to believe the two trains would have stopped in time to avoid a collision.

On Saturday, well before federal investigators began their work, Denise Tyrrell, a spokeswoman for Metrolink, said the crash had probably been caused by failure of its engineer, Robert M. Sanchez, to heed a red signal. Mr. Sanchez, 46, was killed in the crash, but four other crew members on both trains survived and will be interviewed.

Ms. Tyrrell resigned Monday, after the Metrolink chairman, Ron Roberts, issued a statement saying her assessment had been premature.

Ms. Higgins said it could take months to determine the cause, but that testing so far had shownthat the signal had been working properly and that the Metrolink train had bypassed it, destroying switching equipment on the track in the process.. She said Mr. Sanchez had not responded as required to a conductor’s calling out two previous signals to him over their radio, and investigators are also looking into a report by a group of young train buffs that they were text-messaging with the engineer in the minutes before the crash.

“The question is did he see the red signal, did he see it as something else, did he see it at all?” she said at a news conference Monday night.

State regulators on Monday proposed an emergency order to ban cell phone use while operating a train; Metrolink has said it had a policy against using cell phones in the cab but the state action would prohibit it by law.

At Mr. Sanchez’s home in La Crescenta, Calif., north of Los Angeles, there was no response Monday to a knock on the door.

As for the early-warning technology, Ms. Higgins questioned why regulators and the railroad industry had not developed it sooner, noting that it had been more than 30 years since positive train control systems had been created for small sections of track elsewhere and put in use.

In the first of what is expected to be a wave of court cases, the family of a 19-year-old woman killed in the crash filed paperwork Monday notifying Metrolink that it planned to pursue a lawsuit. The claim, by the parents of Aida Magdaleno, said Metrolink could have put positive train control technology in place but had not.

“It is outrageous we can suffer the loss of 25 lives and injury of countless others when the technology exists, it’s affordable and critical,” said Paul R. Kiesel, the lawyer representing the Magdalenos.


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