Metrolink tries to fix up its act

William Herbe

A Metrolink train leaves the Northridge station for the Chatsworth stop. Saturday marks the one-year anniversary of the Chatsworth train collision that claimed the lives of 25 and injured more than 100. Photo Credit: William Herbe / Opinions Editor
A Metrolink train leaves the Northridge station for the Chatsworth stop. Saturday marks the one-year anniversary of the Chatsworth train collision that claimed the lives of 25 and injured more than 100. Photo Credit: William Herbe / Opinions Editor

A year ago Saturday, news broke with disturbing images of what we now know as the Chatsworth train collision. The accident was the worst to have ever struck Metrolink—Southern California’s premier regional rail system and commuter train service—in its 17-year history. There were 25 left dead in the accident and more than 100 critically injured. The accident hit home for CSUN when one of our own, Aida Magdaleno, was killed and faculty members were injured.

Metrolink can never compensate for the injuries and lives lost. They have blood on their hands. It isn’t easy cleaning the blood off your hands when you are known as the rail system that experienced the worst train crash in the nation since 1993.  But this isn’t about compensating or cleaning or a makeover. This is about fixing… fixing every error that may have caused this accident so it will never happen again.

Immediately following the collision, many speculated as to how an accident of this magnitude can occur. System failure, human error and poor communications were discussed. Metrolink spokeswoman Denise Tyrell was the first to report the failure of the engineer to stop at the red light at the Chatsworth station. She immediately came under fire for premature blame…days later she resigned. This was the beginning of a messy investigation that is still ongoing, as well as doubts of Metrolink as a safe and trusting mode of transportation.

It’s reasonable to think that Metrolink has had a long look in the mirror following the grisly crash. They had to deal with the disaster by holding certain employees accountable, responding with a fury.

It’s mandatory for Metrolink to be in the hot seat and respond with crucial results. A year later we must ask how Metrolink can ensure that an accident like this will never happen again.

Angela Starr, public informations officer at Metrolink, said that Metrolink has more than a handful of initiatives they have been working through in the last year. Some are underway, while others are waiting for financial backing to begin installation.

For starters, the human error needed to be corrected immediately following the collision. Action was taken quickly. By Sept. 26 they started to carry a second engineer in the control cab as a second pair of eyes. This will help if the engineer becomes incapacitated. And Metrolink will also ensure that no extra-curricular communications are occurring while they are in the cab. (Robert Sanchez, the train’s engineer was receiving and sending text messages seconds before the crash.) This summer, Metrolink has also begun to install Forward- and Inward-Facing Cameras.  This program will take the place of the second engineer as it continues installation. Its scheduled completion is this fall.

Another big change was the termination of top managers at Connex, the company contracted out by Metrolink to operate the trains since 2005.  If that wasn’t unsettling enough for Metrolink, they are now negotiating with Amtrak to replace Connex.  Although it’s not certain that this will help ensure a safe ride with a new contractor, they are taking leaps to gain the trust of riders who might otherwise reconsider taking the Metrolink by getting rid of those whose reputations have been tainted by the tragedy.

The most technologically advanced change that Metrolink is implementing is still in the works. It’s the much-anticipated PTC (Positive Train Control) communication and information system.  In layman’s terms, this system would allow those at the command center to stop the train remotely. If this technology were implemented before last Sept. 12, those at the command center might have been able to stop the train after it had passed through the red light at the Chatsworth station. This is still being worked out and a tentative date for PTC installation is the end of 2012.

Metrolink can never make up for what happened. No price can pay for the lives lost. The victim’s family and friends will always look at Sept. 12 as the day their loved one was taken from them without warning. For those who survived, they have to live with the awful sounds, the smell of burning twisted metal and impetuous carnage for the rest of their lives. Metrolink owes a promise to its riders that an accident will never happen again.

Metrolink is fighting to make these initiatives real and we have already seen some of them installed. Current and future riders can only hope that their lives are in good hands. Human and technological advances aren’t going to make Metrolink perfect, but the fixes and upgrades they are implementing should raise the confidence and trust of the riders.

It’s unimaginable to comprehend the chaos the survivors encountered. It’s inconceivable to understand the hurt and loss that the loved ones of the victims have endured and will continue to endure for the rest of their lives. As passengers and customers of public transportation in Southern California we should trust our drivers, conductors and engineers. It’s easier said than done, and this may have been avoided if the initiatives were installed years earlier, but it appears that Metrolink is doing everything in their power to prevent this catastrophe from happening again.