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.

No comments: