We've used the term, "a perfect storm," to describe this combination of events. We had two trains that were traveling through in the same area, roughly on the border between the city of Los Angeles and the city of Glendale. One of the trains traveling southbound, originating in Moorpark that morning, a little after 5 a.m. A second train traveling northbound had left Los Angeles a little before 6 a.m. and was due to go all the way to Burbank Airport, then come all the way back.
About the time of the northbound train had left the Glendale station, and about the time the southbound train was getting ready to arrive at the Glendale station, an individual who we found out was attempting to commit suicide actually drove his vehicle, a Jeep Cherokee, onto a crossing in Glendale, and then drove it down the tracks about 150 feet which is very unusual.
That was one of the first unusual aspects about this. When we have people get their vehicles on the tracks, it's almost always on the crossing. This individual drove his vehicle farther down and then drove it up onto one of the tracks.
Signal: He drove down the tracks?
Oaxaca: Well, we're not actually sure, yet, if he drove on the tracks themselves, or along the side of the tracks where there is some space. But in any case, he got ... about 150 feet from the crossing and then drove up onto one of the tracks, perpendicular to one of the tracks, and just stopped his car there. Apparently, at the last second, he had a change of heart and got out of the car and left it behind.
The southbound train struck it and derailed, and about at that time, the northbound train was passing just about the same location. In a very short amount of time, it looks like, the first train hit almost head-on a parked freight train that was parked in a siding track. That, literally, as far as we can tell, spun the first train around and jackknifed it, so that the back end of that train hit the side of the second train coming northbound, and derailed that one.
The freight train ... was actually a train that was loaded with a number of cars full of gravel that were to be taken further north to continue doing repairs on tracks that have been damaged in the rain in the past month.
So, that train is normally not there, and it's not normally being used for those types of repairs.
The vehicle would not normally have been on the tracks.
If one of those trains had gotten there 10 seconds earlier, things might have been very different.
So, it really was an unusual set of circumstances that caused the result.
If the third train hadn't been there, then the odds are that the first train wouldn't have spun itself around like it did. It would have continued more or less in a straight fashion, we think, but it would have eventually come to a stop. It wouldn't have been damaged so severely, nor would it have jackknifed the way it did, most likely.
Signal: Eleven people died, including one of the Metrolink conductors and several local government employees, including a deputy sheriff. There were reports of at least 180 injured. How packed were these trains?
Oaxaca: The trains weren't full. Both trains had three cars on them, and one of our cars can hold about 140 people seated. The southbound train, the one that had more passengers on it, normally carries around 200 people. So, it was less than half-full, most likely.
The other train is what we call one of our "short turns." It means it only travels from L.A. to Burbank Airport, and it only averages about 40 to 50 people a day. So, total, there were 250, maybe, tops, 300 people on both trains. So, they weren't full. They normally aren't full.
Signal: As bad as it was, it could have been worse.
Oaxaca: It could have been a lot worse. We have trains later in the morning that are almost packed to capacity.
Signal: Capacity being?
Oaxaca: Depending on how many cars there could be 400 or 500 people on the southbound train, for example.
Signal: Was this the worst accident in Metrolink history?
Oaxaca: This is clearly the worst. We've had other instances where we have had fatalities on board our trains two in one case, one in another case. This, with 11 fatalities, is clearly the worst we've experienced.
Signal: How safe are the trains themselves? Has there ever been a derailment or collision that was the fault of a conductor or equipment?
Oaxaca: There have been cases throughout the country where there have been derailments or collisions between trains, that were basically (caused by) human error.
Metrolink has had one incident that occurred down in the Fullerton area three years ago, where the engineer operating the Metrolink train allowed his train to pass a red signal, and the Metrolink train sideswiped a Burlington Northern-Santa Fe freight train. There were a number of injuries on our train. It was a train, fortunately, that was, again, not packed to capacity; it only had about 50 or 60 people on it. There was one fatality in that case, but that's the only case in our history where we've had something like that happen.
Signal: When did Metrolink start?
Oaxaca: We started running trains in October of 1992. So we're coming up on our 13th year this year.
Signal: In this collision, were your engines in front or behind? Pushing or pulling the passenger cars?
Oaxaca: We had a little of both. The southbound train had the engine behind, pushing. The northbound train had the engine in front. Basically, Metrolink trains operate in one configuration or another about 50 percent of the time it is basically evenly split.
The purpose and the reasoning behind that type of operation is that you avoid having to physically turn the train around or equip every train with two locomotives. The lead passenger car can perform all the functions of a locomotive, with a small cab control section where the engineer sits. All you're doing is moving the engineer from one end of the train to another.
It makes for a very efficient operation, both cost- and time-wise, and allows you to have enough equipment to operate the service without having to over-invest in additional locomotives when you can still run the service without having to invest in so many locomotives.
Signal: Wouldn't it be safer always to have the engine in front? Better control, like front-wheel drive versus rear-wheel drive in a car?
Oaxaca: It's a difficult question right now. The incident that occurred on Jan. 26 has raised those questions again. And there have been some studies that have been done in the past, looking at any differences that might exist, in terms of passenger safety, operating the locomotive in front or in the rear. There's no conclusive information yet, at this point.
We're going to be looking again, working with the Federal Railroad Administration, the (National Transportation Safety Board) and other agencies to see if there is any additional research that can be done, or has been done, that might indicate that there could be differences in passenger safety.
This incident had so many unique aspects to it that we're trying to be careful to not react to this particular incident, because there are so many unique things about it. We've literally not been able to find another incident that we can compare it to, that had all of these things happen at the same time, in some other location at some other time.
Signal: What are some of the things that are being examined?
Oaxaca: It's a kind of lengthy process that occurs. The NTSB which most people are more familiar with in terms of commercial airliner incidents ... their task is to investigate railroad as well as maritime incidents. So, there was an NTSB "go team" that would go out to the site and, what they do is, they set up these subcommittees, basically they're working groups, led by experts that they have in various areas.
They have a group that looks at the tracks. They have a group that looks at the signals and communications system. They have a group that looks at what they call "human factors," which is, was there any human aspect? the engineers, the conductors, the train dispatchers any action that they might have contributed to the incident?
They also have a group that looks at what they call "crash worthiness" or "survivability," which basically means, did the equipment behave the way it's supposed to? Was it designed properly, and did the design work the way it was supposed to? The passenger cars? The locomotives? And, were the factors that had been designed into the passenger cars to help people survive collisions and derailments did they work like they were supposed to? The seats, the cushioning, grab handles, the lights, stairwells to allow people to escape all those things are looked at, and it takes quite a bit of time to go through their process to come to some sort of conclusion. We're working with them to make sure we go through this process in great detail.
Signal: Almost exactly two years earlier Jan. 6, 2003 there was a derailment in Burbank and a number of people from Santa Clarita were injured. Some injuries occurred when people were pinned under tables inside the train. Afterward, did you reconfigure the interior components?
Oaxaca: Well, the specific issue of tables and seats on the train has been looked at really carefully. The seats are designed in a way to perform a couple of functions. One, you want them to be comfortable, and to allow people to sit in that spot for an hour, an hour and a half, comfortably. But also, the padding, and the angles of the seats and the separations between them and the materials that they're made of, are designed to help people withstand collisions, up to a certain level of collision, to keep them within that area where the seat is located, to help in case the seat opposite you is not occupied and you fly into that seat cushion that particular type of movement.
Tables are also designed to perform a dual function. One, to be able to support a certain weight, and to be of a certain size and a certain level, but also they are designed to withstand a certain amount of motion or pressure. So, it's a fine line to having a table that meets all of the specifications and doesn't in some way contribute to injuries to passengers.
Signal: Are there seat belts?
Oaxaca: There are no seat belts on Metrolink trains. That's another question that (has) come up recently, and that comes up when there are incidents of the type we experienced last week. Seat belts are present in your personal vehicles, SUVs, commercial airliners, but they aren't installed in trains, and they aren't installed in buses or school buses that's a common example.
Signal: Why not?
Oaxaca: One of the main reasons, that most people don't realize, (is) that trains typically aren't subject to very quick stops or violent accelerations as, let's say, a personal automobile or truck or SUV is.
A train can take a half mile, three quarters of a mile, maybe even a mile, to come to a complete stop, because of all of the mass that you're trying to stop even with full application of the brakes. (Riding) on a train where full braking is applied, you barely feel a slight lurch. The greater indication is, you hear an escape of air from the brake system which sets the brake. So you're not going to have any need for a seat belt to keep you in place. There's no momentum forcing you out of your seat, in a typical situation.
Another thing that's been found with seat belts, especially related to train derailments, is that seat belts can actually make it harder for people to get out of a train car, in case there's a fire or if there's any type of fuel leak or any type of hazardous material leak. It can also make it difficult to rescue people when there are seat belts involved.
Plus, in the train environment, especially with commuter trains or passenger trains, you'd have to have a whole system to regulate their use and guarantee that people would use them. One of the main benefits that people like about riding trains is that you can get up and walk around. In a commercial airliner, for example, you're in a very enclosed space, and you have quite a bit of on-board assistance to make sure people use the seat belts.
Signal: The pilot tells you when you have to wear it.
Oaxaca: It's a very different environment.
Signal: So, now what? You're analyzing what's worse having seat belts and not being able rescue people as easily, or not having seat belts and letting people bounce around inside the train?
Oaxaca: Well, what we're trying to look at it is, trying to take what happened on Jan. 26 and fold that into other incidents that have occurred and see if we can come up (with) a more general conclusion based on some type of scientific analysis.
Like I said, we're trying to be careful and not react to one particular incident that has at least, right now we have incomplete information about exactly what happened, what the dynamics exactly were of the incident, and how that affected the passengers where they were seated, what type of motions their bodies went through, what type of motion the rail cars went through and then get to the point where maybe we could make some more general conclusions about how we could enhance safety for passengers.
Signal: After the January 2003 crash, sheriff's deputies rode the trains, looking for pedestrian and vehicular violators and giving them $271 citations. Was that just a temporary enforcement program?
Oaxaca: That's actually an ongoing program that we have. We've been doing that since 1991. It's called the "officer on the train" program. We do it in conjunction with a national rail safety group that's called Operation Lifesaver. We have police officers, and generally we work with the local police departments with each city we've worked with a number of the departments up here in the Santa Clarita Valley, the city of Santa Clarita, city of Lancaster, city of Palmdale, for example. We have their officers on board our train, actually observing what our train engineers see on a daily basis.
We operate a train through several crossings in a particular city, and police officers are also stationed at each one of the crossings. So, we actually have an opportunity not only to train the officers and teach them what to look for, what types of unsafe behavior is going on at crossings, and they can also, at their discretion, give a warning or actually cite individuals for illegal behavior stopping on the tracks at a crossing, trying to beat the gates, driving behind them, driving around them.
We've had people drive right through gates when we're doing these things; people walking along the railroad tracks, people walking along the tracks or crossing the tracks when they're not supposed to. All of these activities are illegal besides being dangerous and risky.
Signal: If you're on Soledad and you're turning onto Rainbow Glen and you stop at the light, you can't stop between the white lines, right? That's illegal, isn't it?
Oaxaca: I'm not familiar exactly with the crossing, but generally, the white pavement markings are where you can't stop.
Signal: What's with the Operation Lifesaver commercials you've been running on Channel 20?
Oaxaca: These are public service announcements that we've circulated all throughout Southern California, that we've used to promote that awareness about safety around the railroad tracks.
There's been a number of different ones that we've distributed over the years, to try to raise the public's awareness about certain activities that are really risky around railroad tracks. We've done a couple looking at trespassing on railroad tracks; jumping fencing or walls along railroad tracks; walking along the tracks between the rails. We've done some others related strictly to trying to beat the train at a crossing; driving around the gates; or driving under the gates as they're coming down all of these types of activities that you're really risking your life for.
Signal: It's a bit like the city of Santa Clarita saying the local intersections are safe; it's the drivers who are unsafe. The trains only derailed because stupid drivers stopped on the tracks. Just how safe is Metrolink travel?
Oaxaca: Statistically, you're 40 times safer in a train than you are in your personal automobile. And we've heard the comment many times from our commuters that that's one of the benefits of traveling on Metrolink. They're not exposing themselves to the dangers of traveling on our streets and freeways.
You're actually twice as safe on a train compared to traveling on a commercial airliner, even. Metrolink travel is safe.
Again, we have incidents where we have people who drive in front of the train, try to beat the train at crossings and that's where the problems start.
Signal: Do you have other outreach programs to tell people to pay attention?
Oaxaca: Yes, we do. It's a three-pronged program that we have. The PSAs public service announcements are part of the education component, and along with that we have a rail safety outreach group that actually goes out to public schools elementary, middle and high schools as well as to trucking companies and other transportation providers, professional drivers (and) give them presentations about safety around the railroad tracks; how to operate their vehicles safely. People who drive big-rig trucks, for example they have other concerns they need to be aware of because the length of their vehicles, and ground clearances at grade crossings. They need to make sure they don't get their vehicles stuck on the tracks, for example, which can happen. So, there are other aspects of rail safety that we communicate to them about.
We have our "officer on the train" program, which we talked about earlier. We also have our engineering component, where we actually work with the cities that have railway crossings, to make those crossings safer.
Many years ago there weren't very many crossings that actually had gates, lights and bells. The best you were going to have is the old cross buck sign that said "Railroad Crossing" and maybe a stop sign. Metrolink has had an ongoing program over the years. We've invested millions of dollars in improving crossings throughout Southern California, making sure they have all the lights, gates and bell mechanisms that are indicated, as well as adding raised median islands to keep people from making those turns into opposite lanes of traffic.
(We're) even looking at adding additional signal lights, additional striping, pavement markings, signage, reminding people, for example, not to stop on the tracks, or that there's more than one track. There's the possibly of two trains passing in the opposite direction.
All of these go together in a regional program that we've been involved in since before we actually started operating trains.
Signal: We have a lot of at-grade crossings in Santa Clarita. Aren't grade-separated crossings safer?
Oaxaca: Absolutely. "No crossing" is always better than "yes, crossing." On a practical level, the average grade separation, which is either building an underpass or an overpass at the crossing, can be anywhere from $8 million to $10 million up to $40 million or 50 million, per crossing.
The state of California, the Public Utilities Commission, has a priority list of crossings that they evaluate on an annual basis. They take into account a number of factors, including how many cars are traveling through the crossing, and how many trains travel through the crossing. If we were to add up the total to grade-separate all those crossings and there's only about 60 of them you're looking at well over $1 billion, just for those.
Signal: Who pays for Metrolink? How much do fares cover?
Oaxaca: We recover about half of the cost to operate the trains from fares, from our customers. The other half comes from the county transportation commissions that make up the Metrolink system. Those are the commissions that represent Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Riverside, Orange and Ventura counties. In L.A. County, it's the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) that provides part of the funding.
Signal: It comes out of the sales tax?
Oaxaca: In L.A. County it does. That's correct. There's a half-cent sales tax.
Signal: How big is Metrolink's region?
Oaxaca: I'll give you the outlying points: It's from Lancaster to Oceanside, and from Oxnard to San Bernardino. It's roughly 500 miles' worth of track that we operate.
Signal: How many trains?
Oaxaca: We run 142 trains a day now. Twenty-four daily, into and out of the Antelope Valley, Monday through Friday, and then we've got eight on Saturdays.
Signal: You just lost two trains
Oaxaca: We've lost two train sets.
Signal: How much does a train cost?
Oaxaca: You're looking at anywhere from $3 million to $3.5 million per passenger car, and about $4 million per locomotive.
Both locomotives, we think, we're going to get back in shape in the next few weeks. But it looks like we've probably lost four of the six passenger cars on the two trains. So we're scrambling around to see if there's any of our colleagues in the commuter train business that have some cars they're not using right now that they could lend us for a period of time, because those aren't off-the-shelf items. It will take us awhile to replace them.
Signal: It's been a week; how's ridership? Are people confident in Metrolink?
Oaxaca: Fortunately. I think the biggest testimonial for us is from our riders. As of Feb. 1, the ridership is now about 95-96 percent, on those two lines, of what it was before our incident on Jan. 26.
Signal: What can cities do to get more people to use trains? How bad do the freeways have to get?
Oaxaca: I think one thing to do is to really promote it within your communities, and to promote the fact that using train service is a benefit to everyone, even those who don't use it. Because every person that's on our train is not driving their car on your local street, and not driving that car on your local freeway.
Our target market is the person who's driving alone they're not carpooling, they're not riding the bus right now, they're not using some other shared-ride mode of transport. If everyone can see that just getting that one person onto the train makes it better for everybody, I think that's what really helps.
See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.