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Design flaw at Expo and Blue Line junction has regulators on guard

May 21, 2012 | 12:48 pm

A Blue Line light rail leaving downtown Los Angeles turns left at the corner of Flower and Washington on tracks that post a safety issue, records show. The junction is where the Blue Line and the new Expo Line split off from one another. Credit: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

State regulators have required stringent inspections of a downtown Los Angeles rail junction for the newly opened Expo Line because of what they call a serious design flaw that poses an increased risk of train derailments.

Officials of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority insist the intersection of the region's newest light rail service and the older Long Beach Blue Line at Washington Boulevard and Flower Street is safe for now because of small modifications to the tracks.

But the junction -- several blocks south of the multilevel underground Metro Center station at 7th and Figueroa -- has presented significant safety issues and requires a special inspection program because of "non-standard" repairs made in an effort to correct the problem, said Michelle Cooke, who oversees the California Public Utilities Commission's rail safety unit.

The extra inspections, which will continue indefinitely, were a condition of commission approvals to open the first 7.9 miles of Expo Line last month.

"So far, we have confidence in it," Cooke said, adding that commission officials must be convinced the problems have been solved before lifting the inspection program.

MTA records show the junction as built is defective and presents potential maintenance and safety issues, including a heightened risk that southbound Blue Line trains could derail in the sharply curving intersection -- or elsewhere along their route -- because of equipment damage. About 140 train trips a day are made by the Blue Line, one of the nation's busiest light rail lines, with 26 million riders annually.

The junction with its tight turn is a design that has never before been approved for MTA's passenger rail operations. The track intersection also does not conform to standards recommended by a national rail engineering group that sets design and construction guidelines for the industry.

MTA and Expo officials say that thickening a small portion of track in the intersection and lengthening rail guides appear to have solved an alignment problem that caused excessive wear to the track and the wheel assemblies of rail cars. An earlier recommendation had called for the redesign and replacement of the junction.

“We believe we've solved the safety issues," said Vijay Khawani, the MTA's executive officer of corporate safety. "If we see trends that are negative, we will notify the Public Utilities Commission and identify a plan to address those problems."

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-- Dan Weikel

Photo: A Blue Line light rail leaving downtown Los Angeles turns left at the corner of Flower Street and Washington Boulevard on tracks that post a safety issue, MTA records show. The junction is where the Blue Line and the new Expo Line split off from one another. Credit: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

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