5:35 PM

Why Aren't Our Railroads Held to the Same Standards as
Our Air Carriers?

That is a very valid question I believe, in light of the horrific crash of a Metrolink passenger train in Chatsworth, CA that has claimed the lives of 25 and injured as many as 135 more. It is simply unacceptable that the railroad industry can allow this kind of accident to occur, but we must at least give respectable kudos to Metrolink officials for coming right out with the cause in this weekend's Los Angeles Times:

"Metrolink officials on Saturday said the train's engineer apparently failed to heed a trackside red light near a junction with a railroad siding. But they did not disclose how they knew the red light was functioning properly."
Some – including the 125,000 strong union that represents most train engineers – are saying this admission by Metrolink officials is "terribly premature" pending the release of the initial NTSB brief.

I think the key word in the above Metrolink statement is "engineer"...suggesting there was only one engineer driving a train heavily loaded with 225 commuters. The image above showing a Metrolink engineer eating his lunch in the tiny cab seems to confirm the lack of a "co-pilot" or even room for one. Had this been a Brasilia flying just 30 souls directly OVER the train crash site, we all know FAA regulations would have mandated two pilots on the flight deck. And we all know the reason why:
The Captain in the left seat runs the ship, aided by the First Officer in the right seat. In some cases, a crusty high-time Captain thinks the FO is dead weight, ballast if nothing else. But when that Captain ignores or cannot competently follow a life-and-death ATC instruction similar to the "red signal" allegedly missed by the guy driving the Metrolink train, it is the duty of the FO to step in, pull the plug on the Captain and take control of the plane.
There will be many lessons the train industry will learn following a crash said to be so grotesque that seasoned firefighters and rescue personnel could not handle more then 90 minutes inside the mangled first passenger car of the train. While it will be some time before we know the root cause of this disaster, CBS2 TV in L.A. is reporting something that is chilling if it turns out to be true:
"Local teenage train enthusiasts who knew the engineer well doubt that he was to blame. But one minute before the deadliest crash in Metrolink history, one teen said he received a text message on his cell phone from the engineer."
If this proves to be true – and it should be easy for NTSB to confirm – this needs to be the wake-up call for the train industry that two engineers should be required on the "flight deck" of any passenger train. And this next statement by me won't make the train guys any happier:
I'm sorry, but it just can't be that hard to drive a train. They seem to need only two gears, forward and reverse, a throttle and a brake. No weight and balance is required, the thing is just heavy, period. Altitude, well let's just say it pretty much remains "zero AGL" all the time. Once a train is moving, everyone at the train crossings is supposed to get to the hell out of the way, so the only real job of the engineer is obeying the stop/go signals and arrival/departure at stations. Compared to flying a jetliner, driving a train is cake. With redundant pilotage, the Metrolink train could have come to a full and complete stop well ahead of this crash.
We must assume that the "avionics" on today's passenger trains are probably not as sophisticated as even those on a Cessna 182 with G1000 panel. But even without GPS and autopilot, systems designed to prevent this kind of crash have been proposed in the past. Again, from the LAT:
"The NTSB for decades has recommended collision-avoidance devices for corridors where passenger and freight trains use the same track. Friday's disastrous collision might have been prevented if Metrolink and the region's freight railroads had installed sophisticated warning and control devices, according to safety experts who have been calling for such improvements for decades."
If large transit systems like San Francisco's BART trains can be operated by computer to keep from trading paint, a have to agree with NTSB that some sort of kill switch on passenger trains couldn't be all that hard to install. That way, when that lone engineer is distracted by something in the engine, asleep or possibly text messaging his buddies and blows a stop signal, the power gets killed by radio and the emergency brakes automatically apply.

I mourn for the families who have lost loved ones in this crash, it did not need to happen. This is one time the train people need to take a safety lesson from commercial aviation. We would have a lot to teach them, starting with redundant crew requirements up front. And with the quick admission by Metrolink that they believe the engineer is at fault, will anyone be at all surprised when the flood of lawsuits pour in and bankrupt this carrier?

Tonight, tomorrow and forever, I sure hope every other passenger train in America has two crew up front. Because if they don't, the next Chatsworth is certainly out there just waiting to happen.

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