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Chatsworth crash report: Metrolink needs to improve safety

December 12, 2008 | 11:02 am

A report by Metrolink commissioned after the catastrophic Chatsworth crash concludes that the commuter rail agency needs improve its safety culture and oversight of train operations.

The transit agency needs to "develop a stronger, unified safety culture" and set long-term safety goals that can be measured, according to a copy of the report obtained by The Times.

Since 2001, the report noted, Metrolink staff has remained flat while the number of contract employees and trains operating in the five-county jurisdiction has grown. Over the years, the agency has saved costs by contracting out train operations and keeping administrative oversight staff to a minimum. The report was written by a special panel formed to examine the agency’s safety and operating procedures in the wake of the Chatsworth train collision that killed 25 and injured 135.

Federal investigators have said that a Metrolink train failed to stop at a red warning light and slammed into an oncoming Union Pacific freight train on a single line of shared track.

The engineer of Metrolink 111 sent dozens of text messages while on duty the day of the crash, including one just 22 seconds before impact, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. The investigation will be ongoing for months before a probable cause is determined.

The Times reported in September that Metrolink has amassed the most fatalities among commuter railroads of similar size in the United States over the last decade. Since 1999, more than 90 people have died in accidents involving Metrolink trains, according to federal data.

Metrolink has changed several operating practices since the Chatsworth crash, including putting an extra crew member in the train cab and revising procedures for confirming trackside warning signals. The agency also added a speed regulation after a Metrolink train accelerated to nearly 70 mph before sideswiping a freight carrier in Rialto last month, injuring five people. That Metrolink train also ran a red light, investigators said.

Experts have criticized the safety changes, saying the commuter line should have conducted a top-to-bottom overhaul of its safety policies earlier.

"Making changes after each accident is not the best way to have a safe operation," said Barry M. Sweedler, who spent 30 years with the NTSB as an investigator and administrator

The agency insists that the rail line is safe and has vowed to make it even safer. Today’s report is a key part of that effort, officials said.

--Rich Connell and Robert J. Lopez

Photo: Los Angeles Times file