Posts Tagged ‘Metrolink’

The disaster that is Metrolink

As Metrolink lurches from crisis to crisis, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry:

“We knew we were going to have a rough year,” said Gary Lettengarver, chief operating officer for Metrolink. “Conflicts with freight trains plus track construction were problems. And we’re learning to use positive train control. This is a technology no one really knows about.

Good Lord. PTC is a critical safety system — and nobody knows how it works?

Last year, Metrolink became the first commuter railroad in the nation to implement so-called PTC. Rail officials said they are still fine-tuning the system to prevent it from unnecessarily stopping trains — a problem that resulted in 613 delays. Resetting the onboard equipment, they add, takes up to 20 minutes.

“We are one of the first railroads in the world to have positive train control,” said Art Leahy, Metrolink’s chief executive. “We have a learning curve, and we’ve had to debug the system.”

Leahy must have been living under a rock for the past 15 years, if he really believes Metrolink was the first railroad in the world to install PTC.

Adding to the delays, officials said, were unwarranted activations of positive train control, mechanical problems, operational issues and the use of slow freight locomotives to replace all 57 of Metrolink’s cab cars at the front of trains. After the Metrolink crash in February 2015 near Oxnard, the railroad decided to remove its cab cars from the lead position because of concerns about substandard front-end deflectors that are designed to keep debris and wreckage from getting under the wheels. Rail officials said the large freight locomotives were used on the line for only 10 days in December. They proved slower than passenger engines, and their size, plus the added cars, increased the length of trains, complicating the unloading of passengers because they were too big for station platforms.

As discussed previously, the defective cab cars was a self-inflicted problem. Instead of using service-proven rolling stock, the agency went with a untested design that obviously needs a lot of debugging.

Metrolink officials said they are dealing with the delays and have created a team to visit commuter railroads elsewhere in the U.S. to study how they prevent and cope with late trains.

Oh, great. So they are going to fix the problems by sending staff off on junkets to observe other crappy Amurican commuter railroads.


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The Oxnard Derailment

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.


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I am not of the opinion that CEQA law itself requires “reform”. In the vast majority of projects, the process works fine for all concerned. There is, however, a small number of cases where inexperienced or clueless Judges have made some really baffling decisions. Case in point: the Metrolink Perris Vally extension:

The court released a single-sentence ruling late Thursday, March 28, denying a writ of mandate filed by the environmental group Friends of Riverside’s Hills. The group sued the Riverside County Transportation Commission in 2011, claiming it had failed to address a number of environmental consequences of the commuter train plan.

Yet the full text made available Monday, April 1, shows Judge Sharon J. Waters ruled for Friends on five of 15 points noted in the project’s environmental impact report: the effects on soil, use of track lubricant, pedestrian safety, train wheel noise and construction noise.

Hopefully the project won’t get held up because the EIR failed to mention the use of track lubricant.



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Metrolink Back-Seat Drivers

Senator Boxer is fuming that Metrolink has just a single crew member in the cab on 87% of its runs.

The agency had said it would double up on crew members in locomotives as part of a series of safety reforms after the Chatsworth crash a year ago that killed 25 and injured 135. The so-called second-set-of-eyes plan was a hastily implemented reform after investigators found that the Metrolink engineer had been text messaging on a cellphone and apparently ran a red light just before crashing head-on into a freight train.

The Chatsworth collision is an example of what risk-expert Dr. John Adams terms “low-frequency, high-impact” incident. These types of incidents provoke knee-jerk reaction from politicians who feel the need to do something regardless of cost-benefit.

To my knowledge, there has never been a peer-review study on the benefits of two train drivers. For all we know, such measure would be counterproductive, should the two become distracted while engaging in heated debates over the previous night’s Dodger’s game.

Amtrak-style train service, such as Metrolink, is notorious for low employee productivity. Most transit agencies (outside the US) run commuter service with just a single crewman (i.e. the driver), using Proof-of-Payment ticketing in lieu of conductors. Whereas “safety” regulations and make-work rules in the US necessitate all kinds of extra labor expenses — ticket punchers, ticket sellers, and now an extra train driver too.

There is also significant opportunity cost that comes with hiring superfluous drivers. Their salary comes at the expense of real safety measures; for example, hiring extra patrols at problem intersections to ticket car drivers going around crossing gates.

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Question: How big a train station is required to handle bidirectional 4 trains/hr?

Most railway planners would give an answer something like this:

But in Anaheim, the solution for handling for their measly 4 trains/hr (2030 projection!) is this $180 million palatial megacomplex, the Grand Central of Orange County, otherwise known as Artic:


The “Leed(TM) Platinum-Certified sustainable building” will provide over 1255 parking spaces.

Unfortunately, the station is not an anomaly. Many cities view train stations as a form of monument building. All over California there are similar stations either being planned or already built. It would be one thing if these were “Grand Central” station stops with tens of millions of annual trips. But they aren’t — even with most optimistic travel forecasts they will always be just minor suburban stops.

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Fencing along railroad tracks is rarely inspected or secured, as two toddlers discovered.

ANAHEIM – State regulators are investigating how two toddlers managed to escape from the sight of Anaheim daycare workers and wound up on nearby railroad tracks, where they were spotted by neighbors who alerted police.

The children were outside the grounds of the Anaheim YMCA Children’s Station at 100 S. Atchison St. Thursday afternoon during group playtime when staff members noticed them missing during a routine headcount, said John Guastaferro, a YMCA spokesman.

Rosie Mendez, 36, said her son, 2-year-old Eric Beder Mendez, got out onto the railroad tracks with another 2-year-old boy. She said she arrived at the daycare center shortly after 5 p.m. on Thursday, unaware that her toddler was missing.

The tracks are used by the Metrolink commuter rail service, which runs trains about every half-hour on weekday afternoons.

In many cases, fencing is installed merely to satisfy the lawyers. They create the illusion of safety, and can be actually counter-productive when they give false sense of security to parents and teachers.

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