Metrolink Refuses to Admit Failure of Rotem Anti-Derailment Plows
Recently, both Ventura County Star and L.A. Times articles reported on Metrolink’s unexpected decision to place newly leased Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) freight engines at the head-end of all Metrolink trains. Both articles omit important safety related information. In the Star article, Moorpark City Councilman Keith Millhouse, a member of the railroad's board of directors said, “… since we don’t know what role, if any, the cab cars played, we won’t speculate on it. The only way to run the railroad and take away a potential risk, if any, until we know the answer, is to put locomotives up front.”
In February 2015, a Metrolink passenger train with a Hyundai-Rotem cab car in front derailed after hitting a Ford F-450 utility truck and trailer. Predawn, that rig became high-centered on to the tracks near the 5th St. and Rice Ave. grade crossing outside of Oxnard. After the collision, Metrolink officials were quick to declare that the state-of-the-art cars with energy absorbing crush zones, heavier construction and anti-derailing features appeared to reduce deaths and injuries in the accident.
The direct quote, at that time was: "We can safely say that the technology worked," Metrolink spokesman Jeff Lustgarten told reporters. "It minimized the impact of what (could have been) a very serious collision. It would have been much worse without it." Now, almost six months after the deadly Oxnard collision, Metrolink spokesman Jeff Lustgarten, or is it now Scott Johnson should retract those erroneous and self-serving statements. It was a "very serious collision". As a result, Sr. Engineer Glenn Steele died. There were twenty-seven injured, including some with life-changing consequences. What could be worse; if everybody died?
In the recent L.A. Times article, Keith Millhouse said, “This is an interim measure until the plow can be evaluated and beefed up if necessary. This is going to be costly for the railroad, but you can't put a price on safety.” Further, the article read, “Millhouse stressed that the temporary restrictions on the Rotem vehicles relate specifically to how the plow performed in the crash, not the larger debate over the safety of cab cars”.
With the Hyundai-Rotem anti-derailment plow, there is no “performance” issue. It is a clear-cut case of structural failure. As demonstrated by news photos taken soon after the collision, the plow, which was formerly attached to Hyundai-Rotem cab car No. 645 is nowhere in sight. As the most important piece of forensic evidence from that deadly collision, what happened to that anti-derailment plow? Is it in the custody of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)? Did contractors who cleaned up the crash site discard it along with other assorted debris? If no one saved that blade, how can Metrolink or the NTSB determine the circumstances of its detachment from the cab car?
To add insult to injury, Metrolink announced just days ago, that it will purchase up to forty-nine state-of-the-art Electro-Motive Tier 4 locomotives. The new locomotives will be replacements for its aging, unreliable and admittedly un-maintained fleet of 1990’s diesel locomotives. With not so much as a prototype of the new Electro-Motive Tier 4 locomotive available for inspection or testing, an artist’s rendering is all that we have to go on.
In the 2015 Oxnard collision, when it impinged upon a Ford F-450 utility truck and trailer, the lightweight Hyundai-Rotem anti-derailment plow experienced a catastrophic failure. Already, Electro-Motive is touting their new Tier 4 locomotive as the lightest weight (280,000 lb.) locomotive available on the market today. If lighter is better, why is Metrolink leasing up to fifty-eight of the heaviest BNSF locomotives available to head up its commuter trains? Without a prototype to test, how do we know if the anti-derailment plow installed on Metrolink’s new Tier 4 locomotives will pass the “F-450 Truck & Trailer Crash Test”?
The Electro-Motive website shows a futuristic picture of a cab-forward locomotive “design” with an anti-derailment plow attached. With its slightly bulbous nose, it looks like a bullet train from one of Governor Gerry Brown’s high-speed rail dreams. If not for the thirty-plus grade crossings on the Metrolink Ventura County Line alone, this lightweight locomotive might be a good idea.
Until necessary grade-crossing safety improvements are completed, I will expect the "heavy iron" of a BNSF freight locomotive up front on my next Metrolink Ventura County Line ride. In block letters, Metrolink should emblazon each BNSF locomotive with the words, "BNSF MEANS TONNAGE". Still we will have the uninformed or unsuspecting, such as Mr. Jose Sanchez Ramirez who's F-450 debacle led to all of this controversy. Most local commuters will slow to a stop when they see the Great BNSF Behemoth approaching their grade crossing. Suicide is still a potential factor, but with BNSF tonnage up front, most Metrolink commuters involved in a collision will probably survive and prosper, even after such an encounter.
For decades, airlines have told us what aircraft will service our flight. So too should Metrolink tell us, what is the consort of any given train. If there is a cab car up front or an obsolete, Bombardier bi-level coach anywhere in the mix, I will not board or ride that train. It is simply too dangerous.
Safety related information released by Metrolink, or its parent organization, the Southern California Regional Rail Authority (SCRRA) is so rare and nuanced, that it fosters conspiracy theories within me. Helping to cheer me up, a source close to the Metrolink investigation recently told me, “I believe the NTSB has the plow and there is no conspiracy to steal it or to foil the investigation. Metrolink will not give details, but I believe that the NTSB informed the railroad about the failure. It is amazing that they are replacing the Rotem cab cars with engines, using an ‘emergency provision’ related to safety. More to come.”
Being closed-mouthed and tight-lipped, SCRRA and Metrolink do little to create or enhance a positive image for passenger rail service in Southern California. It is time for someone or some organization to break through the “cloak of invisibility” that the SCRRA has thrown over its own proceedings. In violation of the California Open Meeting Law (Brown Act), the meeting in which the SCRRA board decided to lease the fifty-eight freight locomotives was closed to both the press and the public. The public has the right to know details regarding the lease of fifty-eight BNSF locomotives, as well as the cost, including who will be footing that bill.
Are the two interlocking passenger rail agencies (SCRRA & Metrolink) serious about competing in the Southern California commuter marketplace? If so, they should reformulate the SCRRA board to include railroad operating and safety experts, not more politicians and political appointees. Until they do, you can expect Metrolink’s operational and legal costs to skyrocket, while ridership continues its long, slow decline. SCRRA and Metrolink, it is time for transparency and reform.