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NTSB official questions national rail safety supervision

March 4, 2009 | 11:45 am

Kathryn Higgins, chairwoman of a board of inquiry, confers with general counsel Gary Halbert, left, and panel member Robert Chipkevich during National Transportation Safety Board  hearings on the Chatsworth rail collision.

Repeated, reckless rule violations emerging from the investigation of last year’s deadly Metrolink crash are exposing systemic problems in the nation's rail safety enforcement and sharpening differences over how to prevent accidents in the years until high-tech collision avoidance systems can be deployed.

A long-embraced pillar of train safety enforcement for Metrolink and other rail systems—so-called “efficiency” field testing—came under fire in Washington today from the chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board panel probing the Chatsworth crash that killed 25 and injured 135.

Kathryn O'Leary Higgins noted that at least four serious violations of safety regulations have been exposed in the examination of the Sept. 12 head-on collision between a commuter train and a Union Pacific freight train:  on-duty cellphone use, a failure to confirm signal colors, unauthorized ride-alongs and marijuana use by a train crew member.

Metrolinkt2 The industry must devise a more effective way to police train crews because traditional field inspections by supervisors are not working, she told reporters. “It’s a handful of people who all know each other," Higgins said.

The Metrolink engineer in the Chatsworth crash was considered a valued, above-average employee based on field tests by his direct employer, Connex Railroad LLC, investigators noted. Cellphone violations in particular are a major problem and regulators need to find new oversight tools, whether they are on-board video cameras or new random testing techniques, officials said.

Indeed, records and testimony released this week documented repeated cellphone violations on the Metrolink and Union Pacific systems alone, both of which were involved in the Sept. 12 crash. As a result of the crash, the worst in modern California history, Congress ordered that the nation’s train system be controlled by computerized crash-avoidance technology within five years.

But a showdown is looming over what to do in the interim. Metorlink says it is pushing ahead with live video cameras focused on train operators, but powerful unions representing engineers and conductors today  insisted that placing two crew members in every cab is the solution. “We certainly don’t support the requirement or the installation of any recording device” inside train cabs because of privacy concerns, said William Walpert, national secretary-treasurer of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.

-- Robert J.Lopez and Rich Connell

Photo: Kathryn Higgins, chairwoman of a board of inquiry, confers with general counsel Gary Halbert, left, and panel member Robert Chipkevich during National Transportation Safety Board  hearings on the Chatsworth rail collision. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

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NTSB takes testimony in deadly Metrolink train crash


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