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Metrolink reverses course on running its own train crews, opens talks with Amtrak

August 28, 2009 | 12:56 pm
In a change of course on a key safety initiative, Metrolink board members today voted to begin sole-source negotiations with Amtrak to provide train crews for the five-county commuter rail service starting next summer.

The action represents a sharp turn in direction from June, when the board approved a plan to hire train engineers and conductors directly.

Given the safety improvements straining the rail agency’s resources and Amtrak’s experience and interest in providing train crews, board members unanimously agreed that negotiating a sole-source contract was the best option for maintaining operations.
The current operating agreement with Connex Railroad LLC, whose relationship with Metrolink deteriorated after last year’s Chatsworth rail crash, will end in June 2010, putting the rail agency under a tight deadline to resolve how the system will be run.

“We have a lot going on here,” said board member Richard Katz, explaining his shift away from support for Metrolink directly hiring and supervising train crews. He noted a series of other projects, including developing a high-tech collision avoidance system, are also challenging the agency.

Bringing train crews in-house had been seen as a key reform and major task for Metrolink. The Chatsworth collision between Metrolink 111 and a freight train was the worst rail catastrophe in modern California history, killing 25 and injuring 130.

Investigators have said a Metrolink engineer working for Connex was text messaging on a cellphone about the time of the crash and apparently ran a red light, disclosures that prompted demands for greater oversight of train crews.

Board members said they want negotiations with Amtrak to move quickly. They agreed to keep open the option of bringing the train crews in-house if contract talks breakdown.
Key to those talks, officials said, will be securing agreements giving Metrolink the ability to make unannounced inspections of train crews and to use video cameras to monitor engineers in locomotive cabs.
Before 2005, Amtrak provided train crews and other operating services to Metrolink. 

-- Rich Connell