On February 24th, a Metrolink train struck a pickup truck that was hauling an empty trailer. Normally such a collision would be no big deal. But in this instance, the train derailed spectacularly, with passenger cars strewn about. Dozens of passengers were injured and the train engineer was killed.
This scenario wasn’t supposed to happen. Metrolink had spared no expense in building new trains to meet the latest FRA safety specifications. The Hyundai-built train was equipped with crumple zones, and special couplers to keep trains aligned and upright in a derailment. None of these supposed safety features functioned as expected. An internal report blames shoddy workmanship:
The confidential report states that the manufacturer failed to meet design specifications that Metrolink required for cow-catchers on cab cars. The unmet specifications related to struts that extended into the car body and a requirement that cow-catchers be able to withstand a load of 100,000 pounds. The document noted that the specifications “may need to be more robust.”
In addition, the report stated that the cow-catcher had some poor welds and that other parts of the device “showed probable failure” despite extra brackets and good welding in other places. A photo attached to the report shows that the cow-catcher had broken off the cab car. Arrows point to four weld failures and areas where bolts were sheared off.
According to the report, a metallurgist found that one of the two failed couplers displayed evidence of a manufacturing defect known as porosity — a casting flaw that causes voids and bubbles to form in the metal.
Not to defend Hyundai, but the real problem isn’t poor quality control, but rather bad train design, and Buy-America trade-protectionism. There are any number of overseas manufacturers who could have sold Metrolink a service-proven trainset. But because Metrolink isn’t allowed to buy trains overseas, Hyundai had to create a whole new facility in the US, and set up a domestic parts stream. That is a complicated endeavor. And the trains themselves are of a custom design, largely dreamed up by government bureaucrats. It is no wonder the Metrolink train is defective.
The most distressing part of this fiasco, though, is the failed coupler. Most newer regional/commuter trains don’t even have couplers, because the world has moved on to articulated trains. Articulated trains have many benefits — one of which is that they are much less prone to jackknifing in derailments. But US rail planners continue to oppose the use of articulated trains, for truly baffling reasons.