Thursday, September 25, 2008

Understanding the Chatsworth Train Accident

How can we understand a totally avoidable train accident on September 12, 2008, in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Chatsworth, , in which 25 people died and over 125 were sent to the hospital, many with serious injuries?

In this case a MetroLink commuter train collided head on with a Union Pacific freight train sharing the same track, but moving in the opposite direction. Yes, sharing the same track. Image driving on a one lane highway in which cars, trucks, and busses traveled at freeway speeds in both directions, but had to share that one lane. Furthermore, the only way a driver would ever know that an 18 wheeler was heading towards him or her was a stoplight. If it is red, drivers must get their car off the road. If it is green, just drive ahead on that one lane highway and trust that drivers coming from the other direction know what they are doing.

If this strikes you as lunacy, you are only half right. This was the deliberate policy of the Metrolink Authority – mostly appointees of local Southern California Democratic and few centrist Republican officials – which runs the Los Angeles area commuter train system. Their jerry-rigged commuter system is not only woefully underfunded, but it is run with total callousness when it comes to the safety of passengers and Metrolink workers. In fact, to save a few bucks, MetroLink contracted with a French company to operate the train system, including the hiring of employees.

Since this dreadful and totally avoidable accident, many people have pointed out the obvious fixes to avoid future accidents. Some are expensive, some are cheap no-brainers, and some are farcical.

The expensive ones are widely practiced by commuter railroads throughout the world. First, the train system needs to be double-tracked. This means that trains traveling in opposite directions would no longer share the same track. Second, all trains would be equipped with Positive Train Control. This is an electronic system which detects trains headed for a collision and automatically stops them.

The cheap solutions which could have prevented this deadly accident are so obvious that they cannot be explained by under funding. First, new radios could have been installed on local freight and commuter trains. Because MetroLink shares train tracks with freight trains and because passenger trains and freight trains use different radio frequencies, engineers are unable to communicate between the two systems. The engineer on the freight train had no way to let the passenger train engineer know he was about to meet his maker.

Second, the seats on the passenger train could have been equipped with seat belts, just like cars and planes. With seat belts, most of those dead or injured passengers, who were flung through the air for about eight rows of seats, would have been saved.

Second, metal tray tables facing seats, on which some passengers were impaled, could have been removed.

Third, split shifts could have been eliminated. In this case the MetroLink engineer, who died in the accident, worked a 13 hour day. First he worked the morning rush hour, then he had the mid-day off, but had to report to work again for the afternoon rush hour. In addition to having such an unsafe work schedule, engineers have no back-up. MetroLink only operates their trains with one engineer, not two. If an engineers is sick, distracted, or misses one of those red lights, that’s it. No one else is there to back him up or catch his mistakes. As for the cheap fixes, there is not even a word so far from the local politicians, as well as their commissioners and administrators, about adding seat belts, removing tables, or buying new radios.

Based on such an enormous public outcry, the local and national politicians – who allowed this calamity to happen – have quickly moved into inaction. At the local level, the California Public Utilities Commission directed rail companies to ban train employees from using cell phones while on duty.

At the national level, proposed legislation would reduce the number of hours train company employees can work from 400 per month to 276. In other words, employees can now work 90 hours weeks, but under the new legislation their work week would be reduced to about 60 hours per week. In contrast, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) limits airline pilots to 100 hours of flight time per month, which translates to a 22 hour work week.

As for Positive Train Control, the proposed legislation would not require these electronic safety systems until the year 2015. How many people will unnecessarily die in the next decade because of this total disregard for the public and for employees?

At a time when the Federal Government is spending about $ 1 trillion to bail out the banks and finance companies, spends more than $1.1 trillion per year on its military and spy agencies, and when the lion’s share of local government budgets is devoted to cops and jails, the “no money” argument of the politicians is quite a whopper.

The real reason is much simpler. They are representatives for a range of private concerns with little interest in commuter train systems except as a minor profit center. Extra engineers, electronic safety systems, seat belts, new tracks, new radios, and removing seat tables all cost money which could be “better” spent in Iraq, Afghanistan, on Wall Street, or to build another jail.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Local Government and the "Lesser Evil" electoral argument

In each presidential year we hear that the Democrats are the lesser evil and that even if they are hawks on foreign policy, the differences on domestic policy justify supporting them – as opposed to the alternatives of focusing on extra-parliamentary politics and voting for third party candidates. But, does this domestic argument hold water in 2008? I think not.

Those who have worked in local government – which has been my professional milieu for the past 25 years – can all testify that it is impossible to discern a difference, especially in Los Angeles. Nearly all of the elected officials at LA’s City Hall have been or are mainstream to liberal Democrats (except for Richard Riordan, who was a liberal Republican tied to many Democrats, like Antonio Villaraigosa.). The elected officials are to a person blindly devoted to expanding the LAPD, direct financial aid to large developers in the form of tax and fee breaks totaling hundreds of millions of dollars, total cronyism in construction contracts to Tutor-Saliba worth billions, and a cavalier attitude towards regulations and code enforcement.

Once these local political types, who exist in every large U.S. city, get to Washington, their policies continue and expand, albeit with two slight differences. First, they have a great "Republicans are bad" hot button which did not apply to local politics, and second, they are very good at invoking the old liberal era, which ran from the 30s to the 60s, even though the last new progressive social program, the Environmental Protection Agency, was established under Nixon. How ironic that such an awful guy was, in reality, the last liberal president!

As far as I can tell, we now have two parties fully devoted to being "business friendly" and maintaining "law and order" from Main Street to Wall Street to the rest of the world. The difference appears to be the way the two parties market this approach. The Republicans push guns, God, and opposition to gays, while the Dems invoke other cultural issues, largely focused on minorities and women, especially abortion. But this hot button, as well, does not stand up under scrutiny. If abortion is the sole issue to justify supporting Democrats – and not devote all of ones political resources and energies to issues and movements -- then why did nearly all of the Democrats in the Senate support Bush's nominees to the Supreme Court? Shouldn't they have at least opposed his nominees because of Roe vs. Wade?

And if women's issues are a major concern justifying passive or active support for a truly awful U.S. and fully bi-partisan foreign policy, then why have the Democrats in the House and Senate made no effort to reverse the dreadful welfare "reforms" of the Clinton administration, which have devastated women throughout this country?

administration, which they support, runs an Finally, as for women in other countries, we only need to look at Afghanistan, where the Democrats are running to the right of the Bush administration, and where the Karzai Islamicist regime which is horribly oppressive of women.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The revenue rationale offered by LA's elected official for allowing commercial advertising on public spaces, especially sidewalks, as well as commercial advertising, such as billboards, and electronic signs which intrude on public spaces is extremely unconvincing. The several millions per year which the city earns from billboards and kiosks bolted to sidewalks, plastered on bus benches and bus shelters, pasted on newspaper vending machines, and now electronic billboards, could be easily offset by two simple steps:

First, stop giving large developers and projects, such as LA Live, hundreds of millions in tax and fee breaks. These are the true budget breakers.

Second, collect the various fees owed the cities on everything from bootleg construction to burglar alarms.

Shame on those elected officials who justify dreadful visual pollution for phony revenue reasons. In fact, if they took these two small steps, they could also revoke the various regressive taxes they are foisting on the public, such as new sales taxes and garbage collection fees to cover police expenditures.

L.A.'s billboard blight: The City Council's sell-off of visual space now turns to the Convention Center

By Dennis Hathaway, Los Angeles Times, September 10, 2008,0,1789087.story

The Los Angeles City Council chamber may not be the best place to debate a philosophical question, but the ongoing debacle of billboard and sign regulation here leaves little choice.

The question is this: Who owns the visual landscape of the city? Or, put in more concrete terms, do companies selling products and services have an absolute right to confront us whenever we venture outdoors?

The answer, from a legal standpoint, clearly is no. Yet the City Council is set to hand over another hunk of L.A. to billboard companies -- this time 50,000 square feet along the side of the Convention Center. The council could vote as soon as today.

Other cities -- Santa Monica, Pasadena, Torrance -- are virtually free of billboards. Their politicians long ago comprehended that using their cities as a commercial canvas was degrading aesthetically as well as socially: Citizens deserve better than to be treated as automatons whose highest purpose is to shop and consume.

The Los Angeles City Council seemed to grasp these values six years ago, when it banned new billboards and other forms of "off-site" advertising and embarked on an ambitious program to inspect every sign in the city and take down the estimated 3,000 or more that were erected or modified illegally.

But then the city dropped the ball. Legal challenges, revenue problems and outright fecklessness on the part of the council have filled Los Angeles with more and more insistent, in-your-face exhortations to get a soft drink or hamburger, to buy a new car or queue up for the latest blockbuster.

Now some council members are actively facilitating this transfer of ownership of the city's visual space to the private sector. Earlier this year, Jan Perry pushed through a deal to allow the erection of electronic billboards in a Metropolitan Transit Authority bus lot alongside the Santa Monica Freeway.

Herb Wesson got preliminary approval for a special "billboard district" that would allow new electronic and super-graphic signs in a wide swath of Koreatown, and Ed Reyes wants a similar district established alongside the Harbor Freeway in downtown.

On the council's agenda today is the plan Janice Hahn is promoting to sell the rights to install electronic advertising signs on the face of the L.A. Convention Center.

The long, greenish, curved facade of the building happens to face the confluence of the Santa Monica and Harbor freeways. An array of electronic signs -- possibly full-motion video, though the council hasn't been specific -- will be directly in the faces of north- and eastbound motorists. The brightly lighted, rapidly changing messages will be unavoidable unless drivers close their eyes.

Hahn calls the selling of advertising rights on a public building a "clever" way to raise revenue for the city. So what's next in this exercise of fiscal cleverness? A super-graphic wrap of City Hall?

Hahn and others supporting this misguided idea will argue that the annual $2 million or more the city expects to get from the advertising signs will help pay for police officers and other services. They will point to the city's budget gap and claim that without such schemes, they will be forced to raise fees or taxes or start cutting city services.

Interestingly, the council also is expected to vote today on a number of "fee waivers" for a church's golden jubilee celebration, a block club party, a farmers market and others. Such waivers -- which mean the city picks up the tab for traffic control, policing, cleanup -- add up to more than $1 million annually, or about half the amount the city expects to get from selling the signage rights at the Convention Center.

This isn't to say that the city should stop providing free services to groups staging worthwhile public events. The point is that the City Council owes its citizens a public debate about what we're getting along with this $2 million. Is it worth the visual blight, light pollution and diminished freeway safety?

And is it worth the precedent the city is setting? The city can't enforce its billboard rules when it is elbow-deep in the business. In June, a federal judge threw into question the rule against signs within 2,000 feet of a freeway -- in part because the city has OKd such billboards when it stands to benefit.

It was bad enough when Los Angeles meekly surrendered its visual environment. But if the City Council keeps playing along with the outdoor-advertising industry, the consequences will be visible for years as well as miles.

Dennis Hathaway is president of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight