Chapter #341: Agencies Ignore Rail Safety Issues - March 16, 2016

New LED flashing lights on the crossbuck at Fifth St. and Rice Ave.are among the few safety improvements at the scene of the Oxnard Metrolink collision in February 2015 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

One Year After a Metrolink Engineer's Death, Agencies Largely Ignore Rail Safety at Oxnard Crash Scene

In the predawn hours of February 24, 2015, Metrolink Train No. 102 struck a disabled Ford F-450 work truck and trailer at the Fifth St. and Rice Ave. grade crossing in Oxnard, California. Over thirty passengers were injured and Metrolink Senior Engineer Glenn Steele later died from his injuries. After a twenty-four hour driving odyssey from Tucson, Arizona to Oxnard, Mr. Jose Sanchez-Ramirez had made a wrong turn on to the Union Pacific Coast Line Unrepaired road damage, missing or worn out safety markings abound at Fifth St. and Rice Ave. grade crossing where a Metrolink train killed one and injured thirty in February 2015 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)tracks. After high centering his rig eighty feet from the intersection, Sanchez-Ramirez had turned on his emergency flashers and left the scene.

After the resulting fiery crash of the Metrolink train, police found Sanchez-Ramirez half a mile from the crash scene, in obvious distress. On February 22, 2016, The Ventura County District Attorney filed a misdemeanor charge of vehicular manslaughter against Jose Sanchez-Ramirez. Immediately, the Union Pacific Railroad, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), Metrolink, the LOSSAN Rail Corridor Agency, Ventura County and the City of Oxnard all breathed a collective sigh of relief. With charges now filed against the truck driver, they were all “off the legal hook” for their collective negligence.

Front end damage to Metrolink Hyundai-Rotem Cabcar No. 645 shows where it struck a Ford F-450 utility truck in Oxnard, California on February 24, 2015 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Union Pacific Railroad owns the Coast Line tracks and is responsible for safety of its railroad infrastructure. The CPUC, in conjunction with Caltrans is responsible for rail safety at grade crossings such as Fifth Street, which is also State Highway 34. Metrolink, which operated Train No. 102, is responsible for maintaining its equipment in safe condition. LOSSAN is a joint powers agency responsible for the overall safety of the second busiest rail passenger corridor in the nation. Ventura County and Oxnard are jointly responsible for maintenance of roadways that intersect with the rail corridor.

For each of the above-mentioned public entities to have remained silent and immobile for the past year is unconscionable. Yet, they all have a perfect excuse. In the case of injury accidents on the nation’s rail lines, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) becomes the lead investigative agency. The "pilot", or plow on Metrolink Cabcar No. 645 went missing during the 2015 Oxnard collision, possibly contributing to its derailment and the subsequent death of Senior Engineer Glenn Steele - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)On March 19, 2015, the NTSB issued a preliminary accident report regarding the Oxnard Metrolink collision. Since then, it has published no further findings.

Until the NTSB issues its final report, the responsible companies, agencies and local governments continue to eschew responsibility for the accident. In fact, each of those entities shares part of the blame for the unsafe conditions or for the faulty equipment involved. Let us look at each entity and its involvement in the collision.

Union Pacific Railroad – For an undetermined time prior to the collision, the Union Pacific Railroad had ignored a damaged steel pylon base that supported the Rice Ave. crossbuck. The crossbuck consists of overhead warning signs
Southbound on Rice Ave., the approach to Fifth Street grade crossing, with its dedicated right-turn lane can be confusing to motorists, even in broad daylight - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)and flashing lights that activate when a train approaches. Loose wiring on the vehicle warning gates was visible after the crash. At the time, there were no reflective plastic safety pylons installed to warn motorists from turning on to the railroad tracks.

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) – Various CPUC accounts hold over $42 million in federal funding intended for rail crossing upgrades in California. As of March 2015, the CPUC had allocated none of that money for repair of dangerous crossings such as Fifth & Rice. At the behest of Congresswoman Julia Brownley (D-26th District), the CPUC promised to investigate conditions at the Oxnard crash scene. If the CPUC has indeed studied the issue, it has published no findings on the internet.

Even after its most deadly rail collision since Chatsworth in 2008, Metrolink continued to tout its Hyundai Rotem cabcars for decreasing the severity of the Oxnard collision that took the life of Senior Engineer Glenn Steele - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Metrolink – The Southern California passenger rail agency has denied responsibility for the Oxnard collision. Instead, they have deflected legal responsibility while pointing to Jose Sanchez-Ramirez and his employer as the responsible parties. For their injuries on Train No. 102, Metrolink has offered passengers no compensation at all. Instead, they offered a one-month free pass for travel on the Metrolink system. If any injured passenger had accepted such a "payment in kind", would Metrolink have later used that fact to absolve itself of contingent liability? I hate to say so, but I believe that they would.

Late in 2015, the NTSB contacted Metrolink with urgent safety information. The NTSB had discovered an equipment failure on Metrolink’s Hyundai-Rotem Cabcar No. 645, which was involved in the Oxnard collision. From the sketchy Porosity of the steel and the welds on the "pilot" of Hyundai-Rotem cabcars may have contributed to the detachment of one such device in the 2015 Oxnard Metrolink Collision - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)reports that came from Metrolink headquarters, we can deduce that the “pilot” on Cabcar No. 645 was deficient. The pilot is a blade-like device designed to clear debris from the tracks, thus preventing derailment. Also called an “anti-climbing device”, the pilot on Cabcar No. 645 had detached during the collision with the F-450 work truck. As it disappeared under the cabcar, the detached pilot may have contributed to the catastrophic derailment and decoupling of the cabcar and the second coach in Train No. 102.

In response to the identified safety threat, Metrolink leased forty freight locomotives from Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad (BNSF). Starting in late 2015, Metrolink began phasing in the use of BNSF locomotives on all of its routes. On outbound trips, a BNSF locomotive trails each train like a caboose. Concerns about the structural integrity of the "pilot" blades installed on Metrolink Hyundai-Rotem cabcars has relegated that expensive equipment to second position on most Metrolink train sets - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)After reaching the end of the line, the BNSF locomotive then heads-up each Metrolink train on its return trip to Los Angeles Union Station. Using this “heavy iron” approach, a BNSF freight locomotive should be able to lift any stalled vehicle or debris off the tracks, thus preventing future derailments.

By its own admission, Metrolink no longer maintains its aging fleet of diesel locomotives. On March 11, 2016, a twenty-four year old Metrolink locomotive caught fire in Pomona, California. With the severity of the damage, it is likely that Metrolink locomotive No. 865 will never go back into service. In an ill-conceived and unsafe plan to save money, Metrolink runs its locomotives until they fail and then repairs them only as necessary to put them back into service.

A fire aboard Metrolink locomotive No. 865 in March 2016 may have put yet another poorly maintained Metrolink locomotive permanently out of service - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)The recent fire in Pomona calls into question the safety and reliability of the entire Metrolink fleet. If Metrolink no longer performs routine maintenance on its locomotives, do they still test, maintain and repair defective braking systems? Even after the derailment and decoupling of the cabcar and the second coach in Oxnard, inadequate breaking systems allowed Locomotive No. 870 to push the entirety of Train No. 102 well past the Rice Ave. grade crossing.

An obsolete Bombardier Bi-level coach may have contributed to death and near-dismemberment in several crashes prior to the Metrolink 2015 Oxnard collision - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Finally, there is a question regarding the second coach in Train No. 102. It was a Bombardier Bi-level Coach with one million miles of service. In its final report regarding the 2005 Glendale Metrolink collision, the NTSB formally warned Metrolink. It said that the “fixed worktables” in Metrolink Bombardier Bi-level Coaches had contributed to injuries and possible deaths in that incident. After the 2008 Chatsworth Metrolink collision, the final NTSB accident report described death and near dismemberment when passenger torsos impinged upon similar fixed worktables.

Metrolink has since refurbished most of the aging Bombardier coaches in its fleet. Part of that process involves the installation of new fixed worktables, which have a thicker cross-section. Still, passenger at least maintains Older style fixed worktables on Metrolink Bombardier Bi-Level coaches caused death or near dismemberment of Metrolink Passengers in at least three previous collisions - (http://jamesmcgillis.com)that derailed Coach No. 206, in which he was injured, had not been upgraded before the February 24, 2015 Oxnard Metrolink collision. That coach, along with the rest of Train No. 102 sits rusting in a Metrolink yard at Moorpark, California. Was the passenger injured by an unsafe, “killer worktable” of the type identified to Metrolink ten years prior? With a quick inspection, the passenger's assertion should be easy to prove or disprove.

By deploying BNSF freight locomotives weighing 460,000 lb., a Metrolink five-car train set now weighs approximately 880,000 lb. As an unintended consequence of this added weight, the obsolete and ill-maintained Metrolink diesel locomotives are now breaking down at an ever-increasing rate.
Recently, at the Chatsworth Station, I discovered that Metrolink has secretly With breakdowns, fires and accidents thinning the ranks of Metrolink diesel locomotives, Metrolink has silently begun leasing replacement equipment from R&B Leasing, Inc. - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)replaced some of its own F59PH locomotives with similar equipment provided by R&B Leasing, Inc. As my photos from that station show, Metrolink now has a BNSF locomotive at one end and an R&B locomotive at the other end of some trains. Sadly, Metrolink is becoming an outsourced passenger carrier that can no longer run trains with its own locomotives.

LOSSAN Rail Corridor Agency – Managing all passenger train activity on the Coast Line, from San Diego to San Luis Obispo, LOSSAN is a de facto arm of the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA). With collocation and co-management at its headquarters in Orange, California, the agency pays little attention to Ventura County and beyond. How often does any LOSSAN agency staffer travel on its Damage to the left-rear quarter of Metrolink cabcar No. 645, shows where the decoupled Bombardier Bi-level coach pushed it off the tracks at Fifth & Rice in the February 2015 Oxnard collision - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)rail network to visit Fifth & Rice in Oxnard?

LOSSAN staff should make the arduous, time-consuming and oft delayed rail trip from Orange County to Ventura County. There, at the Fifth St. and Rice Ave. grade crossing they would discover gross deficiencies in safety management. Remember, it was there that Metrolink Senior Engineer Glenn Steele lost his life in February 2015. For LOSSAN staff, it is time to leave its headquarters and visit the “scene of the crime”. After the site visit, I suggest that LOSSAN make a public report about its findings.

Ventura County and City of Oxnard – The saddest agency on the Southern California transportation map is the Ventura County Transportation Commission (VCTC). With no half-cent sales tax for transportation projects,
Among the few safety improvements at the Fifth & Rice grade crossing was the replacement of the crossbuck base, which supports the overhead warning lights on Rice Ave. southbound - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)the commission can do little more than wave its hands and hope for the best. Before and after the 2015 Oxnard Metrolink collision, the agency called for action regarding safety improvements at the Fifth St. and Rice Ave. grade crossing. They informed us that it was a serial disaster, with death and dismemberment possible at any moment. What did the City of Oxnard and the County of San Buena Ventura do to mitigate safety issues at that grade crossing during the past year? You guessed it… nothing but verbiage.

The tracks in question are in Oxnard, which is in Ventura County. They are part of the Union Pacific Railroad Coast Line. The LOSSAN Rail Corridor Agency manages passenger trains upon those tracks. On those same tracks, Metrolink Train No. 102 collided with Mr. Sanchez-Ramirez’s abandoned work truck. With the overlapping responsibilities of the companies and agencies listed above, it
The hundred foot gap created by the derailment of Metrolink cabcar No. 645 in Oxnard has been replaced - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)is impossible to know which entity did what and when. Among them all, here is what has happened in the past year to fix the problems existing at Fifth & Rice.

Unknown parties have replaced a concrete and wrought iron safety wall, previously destroyed by Metrolink Cabcar No. 645. The loose and ragged wiring on the grade crossing gates is no longer visible to the casual observer. Union Pacific, we assume, replaced the southbound Rice Ave. crossbuck with all new equipment, including LED warning lights and gate-arm flashers. Unknown parties have affixed two (count them, two) plastic safety pylons at the scene. Like two small candles in the night they stand, one on either side of the railroad tracks where Jose Sanchez-Ramirez made his erroneous and deadly turn. To her Only two reflective safety pylons have been installed where Mr. Jose Sanchez-Ramirez made his errant and deadly wring turn on to the railroad tracks - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)credit, Congresswoman Julia Brownley (D-Westlake Village) recently announced that $1.5 million in federal funds has been secured to create a preliminary design for the proposed Rice Avenue railway-highway grade crossing improvement project.

Occasionally, I visit the makeshift memorials for those who have lost their lives at Fifth & Rice in Oxnard, California. It is a place of personal disaster for many people over many years. Sometimes I feel that I am the only interested person who goes there to observe. If the staff of the legal entities responsible for the problem would jointly visit the site, what might happen? If they did, I know that they and their employers would be shamed into action.

Small crosses mark the deaths of at least three previous collision victims at the Fifth St. and Rice Ave. grade crossing in Oxnard, California - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Southern California is famous for its disastrous floods, wildfires and earthquakes. In the past fifteen years, all of those natural disasters combined have taken fewer lives than the grade crossing at Fifth St. and Rice Ave. in Oxnard. Union Pacific Railroad, California PUC, Caltrans, LOSSAN, Metrolink, City of Oxnard and Ventura County, it is well past time to act.
Email James McGillis
Email James McGillis

By James McGillis at 12:28 PM | Railroad Safety | Link

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