Sunday, December 14, 2008

Metrolink: The Problem is Cultural

A Peer Review Panel report produced by railroad industry experts in the aftermath of the deadly September 12 collision between a Metrolink commuter train and Union Pacific freight train was presented on Friday to the metropolitan Los Angeles rail line's board of directors . Its message:
"Top-to-bottom improvements in the safety culture of the Metrolink rail system are needed to reduce the odds of future accidents."
The report hits everyone from the front-line supervisors who oversee the contractors who operate the trains to board members, who need greater involvement to ensure safety policies are enforced. It called on Metrolink to step up its monitoring of "safety critical" workers, chiefly engineers and conductors, through more frequent testing and live video monitoring of train crews. It also said the agency needs to move from paper-based to computerized record-keeping systems.

Other recommendations include restructuring management, appointing an executive-level chief safety officer and better training for board members, including clarifying their responsibilities related to safety. The recommendations come as no surprise. In September, the Los Angeles Times reported that:
"Metrolink has amassed the most fatalities among commuter railroads of similar size in the United States over the last decade. Since 1999, more than 90 people have died in accidents involving Metrolink trains, according to federal data."
Part of the problem may stem from its reliance on outside contractors to operate its trains.
"Since 2001, the report noted, Metrolink staff has remained flat while the number of contract employees and trains operating in the five-county jurisdiction has grown. Over the years, the agency has saved costs by contracting out train operations and keeping administrative oversight staff to a minimum."
Metrolink Executive Director David Solow vows to follow through on the panel's recommendations, but it won't be easy. The railroad's mission statement calls for it to operate as inexpensively as possible, and its operations are dependent upon the cooperation of the two giant freight railroads, Union Pacific and BNSF, over whose track it operates.
But it has no choice. With 48,000 daily riders, it has become a major player among commuter lines and a transportation force in the nation's second most populous metropolitan area. It needs to restore the confidence of the traveling public not only to shore up its own business, but to encourage greater use of rail in the section of the country that made the automobile and freeways a way of life.


  1. Another problem is the inherent conflict in the structure of Metrolink as a joint powers of the 5 County Transportation Commissions for its service area, from whom the Board members are drawn. Metrolink has always been subservient to the agendas and needs of the Commissions and the local electeds on the Board. Adressing that will not be simple.

  2. It almost appears that there is a correlation between the termination of the contract with Amtrak and this deterioriation in operqations noted by the Panel.

    At this time, I'm prepared to predict that Veolia, the French concern presently holding the operating contract, will be on the wrong end of a (to put it mildly) blast from the NTSB.