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Saturday, Jan 28, 2023
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A Crash Course in Safety

By now, should it really come as a surprise that on some regular basis Metrolink trains hit a car or truck, kill the vehicle’s driver and derail, injuring or killing train passengers? After all, that accident scenario was practically built into the Metrolink system, established in 1992 on tracks shared with freight and Amtrak trains to ferry commuters to Los Angeles from cities as far-flung as Pomona and Moorpark. Freight trains lumbered on the tracks for years, and while Amtrak trains are fast, they are not as numerous as the Metrolink trains that ply the tracks during the morning and evening rush hours. It doesn’t take too much shoe leather to see just how potentially deadly the system is. The Antelope Valley line passes just a few miles from my Burbank home, with the tracks at one point just behind a 99 Cents Only Store parking lot. With cars stopped just a few feet behind the crossing gates, the trains whiz by with mass and speed that is always awe inspiring – and incredibly dangerous should anything get in their way. Last month’s Metrolink crash in Oxnard that injured 30 and killed the engineer was typical. This time it involved an out-of-state driver, apparently confused in the early-morning darkness, who took a wrong turn and got stuck on the tracks. That intersection at Rice Avenue, it has been reported, was the site of three collisions in 2009 and 2010 and local officials have long sought to install a “grade separation” – technical jargon for an overpass or underpass that separates tracks from streets. However, money was in short supply for the project that could have cost upwards of $35 million. Why is that? The local media has dug in and the story really isn’t that complicated. The annual state funding that pays for grade separations hasn’t risen above $15 million since 1974. This is even after the horrible 2005 Metrolink collision that killed 11 and injured 177, when a suicidal man abandoned his sport utility truck on the tracks in Glendale. What’s more, grade improvements for the Metrolink system are funded not by the system but by the local agencies that are members of the system. In the case of Ventura County, it doesn’t even have a transit tax like Measure R, which L.A. County voters approved in 2008 and is expected to generate some $40 billion in funds over 30 years. And while local agencies can also seek federal funding, money at that level has not exactly been abundant. Still, it’s not hard to believe that some transit officials may have gotten a bit self-satisfied given that agencies within the Metrolink system have completed $228 million of crossing improvements since 2010. But the problem is, the improvements can’t seem to keep up. The Daily News reported that more people died in Metrolink train collisions – 16 – in the last two years than in the previous five years combined. I would hazard to say the reason behind that statistic holds little mystery. That increase comes at the same time that the economy in Southern California has finally started growing again after years of stagnation following the recession. A growing economy means more pedestrians, commuters, vehicles – and a greater possibility of collisions. Though I haven’t crunched the numbers, I’m sure that being a commuter on a Metrolink train is far safer than driving to work, just the way flying is far safer than driving to the airport. And in a collision, it is more likely that the vehicle driver will die than any Metrolink passenger will be hurt. But why should any driver have to die? And why should any Metrolink passengers have to wonder, when they step aboard a train, whether this will be the trip their passenger car jackknifes off a track because some big rig stalled on the tracks? The undeniable fact is that Los Angeles and Southern California will continue to grow, even if not at the breakneck speeds of the post-war era. So unless some major, systematic program is undertaken to grade-separate all the dangerous Metrolink track crossings, expect that one day, whether it’s months or years from now, we will all be pontificating again about how to fix the system after yet another deadly derailment. That’s one train I hope to not be on board.

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