As BNSF Freight Locomotives Fail The Test - It's Time to Audit Metrolink Operations
At 5:39 AM on February 24, 2015, Metrolink Train No. 102 departed the Oxnard Transit Center. Its intended destination was Los Angeles Union Station (LAUS). After negotiating a sweeping arc of track, the train crossed Rose Ave., at Milepost 405 of the Coast Line. Leading the way was Hyundai-Rotem Cabcar No. 645. After negotiating the initial curve, ten miles of straight track lay ahead. Under the control of a student engineer, the diesel pusher train quickly accelerated to seventy miles per hour.
With Metrolink Sr. Engineer Glenn Steele occupying a jump seat behind the student engineer, it would be less than one minute before the cabcar reached Rice Ave. at Milepost 406.23. Unknown to the engineer and his student, an abandoned Ford F-450 work truck lay high-centered on the tracks eighty feet west of Rice Ave. In the early morning darkness, the headlights and emergency flashers of the disabled truck pointed toward the oncoming Metrolink train.
Until it was too late to avoid a collision, neither the student engineer nor Steele determined that the truck’s lights represented a hazard. While traveling at seventy miles per hour, and with less than three tenths of a mile to go, the student engineer saw the headlights looming before the cabcar. Sounding the horn and applying the brakes was insufficient to prevent a collision. On orders from Steele, the student applied emergency braking and both men bailed out, heading toward the rear of the cabcar.
With the brakes engaged, less than 1500 feet separated the cabcar and the work truck. As momentum carried the entire train forward, the impact with the truck was catastrophic. The pilot, a blade intended to clear debris from the tracks, detached from its support structure and disappeared beneath the cabcar. As the wreckage traveled along the tracks, the cabcar and its following coaches derailed and whipped in opposite directions. As the first two cars rotated and toppled on their sides, the whipsaw effect injured dozens of passengers and crew. One week later, Sr. Engineer Glenn Steele succumbed to his injuries.
In early reports, Metrolink touted the crash energy management (CEM) features of the Hyundai-Rotem cabcar. Without its safety features, a spokesperson said, the severity of the incident could have been greater. A preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) made such statements seem hasty and ill informed. By September 2015, the NTSB had determined that both the steel within the pilot and welds in its structural supports were deficient. Further, the entire assembly had ripped loose at stress levels below its design criteria.
After receiving an NTSB report regarding failure of the pilot assembly, Metrolink officials skirted discussions regarding any potential design flaw or culpability in the collision. Instead, Metrolink management initiated a conference call with its board members. During that call, the Metrolink Board approved a one-year lease of forty BNSF freight locomotives at a total of $20,000 per day. According to Metrolink Chief Executive Art Leahy, the forty freight locomotives would soon head up all Metrolink trains on their return trips to LAUS. Using the “rule of tonnage”, Metrolink management wanted to rule out the possibility of another deficient pilot or cabcar causing injury in a collision. Lost in the publicity regarding this supposed safety measure was the fact that no regional rail carrier in the nation had ever utilized freight locomotives to head up passenger trains.
Citing the unprecedented, yet unspecified safety issues involved with the Hyundai Rotem cabcars, the Southern California Regional Rail Authority (Metrolink) Board sidestepped the California Open Meeting Law. That ill-conceived and illegal action set Metrolink on a path to its potential demise. It also put the executive management team at Metrolink in a position to either defend their actions or place blame on its own board or others yet unnamed.
On December 5, 2015, I attended the “Steel Wheels Conference”, which is the annual meeting for the rail passenger association known as RailPAC. The meeting convened at the Metro Headquarters Building adjacent to LAUS. While on a lunch break, I discovered a long line of BNSF freight locomotives parked on LAUS Track Number 14. With no room to spare in its maintenance yards, Metrolink had redirected at least sixteen of the leased BNSF locomotives to the depot.
In "The Purloined Letter", a short story by American author Edgar Allan Poe, detectives assumed that a blackmailer would conceal a damning letter in an elaborate hiding place. Thus, he hid it in plain sight. In a flash of chutzpah and hubris, the Metrolink executive team decided to hide almost 7,000,000 lb. of BNSF freight locomotives at LAUS.
Soon after their irrevocable one-year lease at $500 per day each ($7,300,000 total), Metrolink discovered that heavy freight locomotives are more expensive to outfit and operate than they originally thought. Although the BNSF locomotives already featured positive train control (PTC), the software version on the BNSF equipment was two generations beyond what Metrolink was using (version 0 vs. 2.0). A new train management computer (TMC) and retrofitted software were required for each BNSF locomotive placed into service. By late December 2015, BNSF locomotives entered into limited service on Metrolink lines. Almost immediately, problems developed with their operation.
With a gross weight of 420,000 lb., an overall length of seventy-four feet and a wheel diameter of forty-two inches, the huge locomotives had difficulty negotiating ten-degree radius curves such as the one approaching Chatsworth Station. As a result, the wheel-trucks on the BNSF locomotives create premature wear on the inside edge of the outboard rail. In a metallurgical process known as spalling, the BNSF wheels shave steel filings off the rails. The dispersion of filings into nearby electrical shunts often shorts out the signal systems along those tight curves.
Although the horns on the BNSF locomotives fall within legal standards, their blaring pitch can make them sound louder than a regular Metrolink horn. With their twelve drive-wheels and massive sixteen cylinder turbocharged diesel engines, the BNSF freight locomotives are louder and create more vibration than their passenger locomotive counterparts. In addition, regardless of their direction of travel, both the BNSF and the Metrolink locomotives generate power, noise and pollution whenever a Metrolink train moves. Despite Metrolink's claims of environmental sensitivity, a double-ender Metrolink train produces almost twice the engine noise and twice the pollution of a single-engine train.
Because of the unprecedented use of freight locomotives in their train consists, Metrolink obtained only a six-month temporary waiver to utilize the BNSF equipment. A stipulation of the temporary waiver was that Metrolink would maintain compliance with all positive train control (PTC) regulations as specified by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). With a few of the BNSF locomotives entering service prior to January 1, 2016, their six-month temporary waiver shall soon expire. When the temporary waiver expires, will the FRA recertify the freight locomotives under rules for passenger use or will it require a full audit of their operations?
One requirement of PTC is that the speedometer on each locomotive shall be accurate at any speed above thirty miles per hour. With a freight locomotive geared for long hauls and a top speed of seventy miles per hour, the stipulated variance of five miles per hour (plus or minus) is difficult to achieve. For example, frequent starts, stops and delays for other rail traffic make the use of freight locomotives on the San Fernando Valley line problematic. Often operating at just above the thirty mile per hour threshold, a wide variety of speed sensors can cause the TMC to place the locomotive into “penalty mode”. Once it enters penalty mode, the TMC automatically applies the brakes and stops the train, no matter where it may be along the tracks.
Before the penalized locomotive can resume service, pumps must refill the air reservoirs that supply breaking power to the train. A locomotive that experiences a penalty can stay in service for the balance of that day. However, a penalized locomotive may not reenter passenger service the following day unless Metrolink corrects the anomaly (inaccurate speedometer) and certifies completion of that work. According to the Los Angeles Times, Metrolink was able to average only twelve BNSF freight locomotives in service per day during April 2016. With so few BNSF locomotives in service, the majority of Metrolink trains returning to LAUS are headed-up by Hyundai-Rotem cabcars. This also begs the question; where are the remaining thirty-eight BNSF locomotives?
After the embarrassment of letting the batteries die on the sixteen BNSF locomotives parked at LAUS in late 2015, Metrolink crews jumpstarted those units and repositioned them to the Metrolink Keller Street Yard. To keep their electrical and motive power units in working condition, the non-operating BNSF locomotives remain in temporary storage at the Keller Street Yard. Placed in “automatic mode”, the engines cycle periodically, bringing them up to operating temperature and charging their batteries. Among other things, this periodic cycling of the engines produces wear on the starter motors, flywheels and the diesel engines themselves.
In 2015, a Los Angeles Times article detailed Metrolink’s plans to purchase twenty-nine so-called Tier-4 locomotives. They were touted as state-of-the-art, low pollution passenger locomotives. According to the article, Metrolink intends to replace up to forty-nine of its aging and ill-maintained passenger locomotives over the next several years. Meanwhile, forty BNSF Tier-1 (high powered, high pollution) freight locomotives sit largely idle in the middle of Downtown Los Angeles. Hidden from public view, cycling their massive engines, these locomotives pump out untold amounts of air pollution into the Los Angeles Basin.
Metrolink’s temporary waiver to operate the BNSF freight locomotives will soon expire. When it does, it will be appropriate for the FRA, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) and the Southern California Regional Rail Authority (SCRRA) to conduct a complete audit of operations and practices at Metrolink.