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Metrolink engineer may have run red signal, prompting new concerns about rail safety

December 1, 2009 | 12:56 pm


With Metrolink still struggling to recover from last year’s deadly head-on Chatsworth collision, officials at the commuter rail agency were investigating a fresh incident in which an engineer allegedly failed to stop at a red signal as another passenger train approached, The Times has learned.

[For the record: Text on The Times’ homepage linking to this post previously referred to the Sept. 12, 2008, Metrolink crash as having occurred in Camarillo. The crash was in Chatsworth.]

The incident last Tuesday, which occurred in late evening 2 1/2 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, has stirred up sensitive issues for the five-county agency. Last year's crash, on Sept. 12, killed 25 people and injured 135.

No injuries were reported in last week’s incident, and both trains managed to stop several hundred feet apart, officials said. If investigators find he ran a red light, it would be the fourth such violation since the Chatsworth crash, including one that caused a sideswipe collision with a freight train in Rialto last November.

Some Metrolink board members are voicing exasperation that another potentially serious violation of a basic safety rule appears to have occurred, despite intensive reform efforts over the last 14 months. 

“This is simply inexcusable,” said board Chairman Keith Millhouse, a Moorpark council member and Metrolink rider. “I’m just extremely upset. ... These engineers are going to get weeded out if they are not going to do their job.” [Note: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said Millhouse was a Simi Valley council member.]

The cause of the safety breach, which delayed trains on the San Bernardino line for more than two hours, is still being sorted out. But there were no initial indications of a mechanical problem, board members said.

The unidentified engineer, who was removed from service pending completion of the probe, apparently recognized the problem as he passed the red signal, officials said. He declared an emergency over the radio, as required, and stopped before traveling through a switch and onto a section of track being used by an oncoming Metrolink train.

The train that passed the red light was outbound from Union Station carrying passengers. It was not immediately clear if the inbound train had riders. Metrolink staff declined to provide details of the incident, citing the investigation.

But U.S. regulators also are looking into the incident, said Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Warren Flatau.

“I’m concerned,” said Rita Yussoupova, who rides the train from Orange County to the San Fernando Valley and was on board last month when a train hit a pickup truck. “They shouldn’t be passing red lights. They should notice them. That’s what they are paid to do.”

Officials have been seeking to avoid potentially tragic safety violations with new video surveillance cameras placed in locomotives, extra engineers assigned as lookouts on key trains and stepped-up random field testing. (The train that passed the red light did not have an extra engineer in the cab, officials said.)

“There is no acceptable number of red-light violations,” said board member Richard Katz. Some board members say red-light violations may be impossible to completely eliminate as long as humans maintain all control of the trains.

But they too are calling for a deeper examination of the problem and strong discipline of engineers who run red lights. “There’s got to be a root cause to this,” said board member Art Brown, an Orange County representative. “There’s just too many. We’ve got to dig down and find out exactly what’s going on.”

Brown and others said the latest incident underscores a pressing need for a high-tech collision avoidance system in Southern California, where freight and commuter trains share hundreds of miles of track.

The current probe will be one of the first to incorporate footage from just-installed video cameras trained on engineers. The engineers union is suing Metrolink to shut down the cameras, claiming they violate members’ privacy rights.

A union spokesman could not be reached Tuesday morning for comment. But the latest possible red-light violation appears to have stiffened board resolve to keep the cameras.

“It’s going to be fantastic,” Brown said. “To be able to see exactly what he was doing. ... If he was doing something he shouldn’t have been, he should be fired.”

Said Chairman Millhouse: “I think the union needs to be less concerned about cameras and more concerned about every single person being focused on their job -- and doing their job.”

In the Chatsworth case, federal investigators say preliminary findings in that case indicate a Metrolink engineer who had been text messaging ran a red light just before plowing into a Union Pacific freight train.

-- Rich Connell

Photo: Los Angeles Times

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