Self-appointed experts rail about crash
Metrolink's critics now fancying selves on par with investigators

Op-ed article, Daily News, February 7, 2005

As a transit official, I have followed the media coverage of January's terrible incident involving two Metrolink trains and an SUV left on the tracks by an individual apparently intent on taking his own life. That coverage has included comments from private citizens who fancy themselves experts on the subject of rail safety.

These "citizen experts" all maintain they are espousing common sense, but in actuality their suggestions contain flaws to which their enthusiasm blinds them.

Improvement of crossing gates to prevent people from entering the track area with their vehicles when a train is approaching, for example, would not have helped in January's incident, because -- as all of the investigative agencies have pointed out -- this was an unprecedented case of someone parking a vehicle across the tracks some distance from a crossing.

Having heavier locomotives with "cowcatcher" devices has been suggested by many as the answer. Most lament that Metrolink did not have a locomotive at the front of the train that hit the SUV. Here's a thought for those who believe that chain of logic: If there had been a cowcatcher on the southbound train, the SUV would likely have been pushed aside ... into the northbound train's path.

The blinding of these citizen experts to all but their own suggestions has even caused them to discount the staggering cost of maintaining dual fleets of locomotives or constructing turnarounds everywhere a train has to reverse direction. If there is some source of funding for this that we don't know about, I wish they would include that source in their suggestions. Because transportation funding has been squeezed to the breaking point at the state and federal level, there are no transit agencies anywhere in California that don't have a budget crisis of one kind or another right now. That may seem like a sob story to be discounted by the citizen experts, but to those of us in the transit industry, it is a cold, hard fact of life.

Metrolink spokesman Francisco Oaxaca is correct when he calls all of these ideas "pie-in-the-sky solutions." There is no money to implement these policies because the citizen experts were too busy pontificating to write to their elected officials in Sacramento and Washington advocating for increased transportation funding.

And it isn't just the "citizen experts" who are making a horrible situation more difficult for the Southern California Regional Rail Authority -- the agency that operates Metrolink -- to try to address the problem.

University of Southern California engineering professor James Moore, who has declared himself an expert in transportation engineering and safety, said publicly after the disaster that if grade separation had been required in 1992, there would have been no Metrolink, and suggests that "now, maybe there shouldn't be."

That is so simplistic a statement, I am amazed that an educated professional would dare to make it. The crash was caused by an SUV left across the tracks; should we ban SUVs from our roadways? There would have been less damage if two trains weren't passing each other at the exact moment of impact; should we restrict Metrolink to running service in only one direction at a time and prohibit any trains from passing each other at any time?

And Tom Rubin, former chief financial officer of the Rapid Transit District (I'm still trying to figure out how that qualifies him as a rail safety expert), said the configuration of the train was an "important factor" in the number of deaths and injuries in this crash. Yet even the spokesman for the Federal Railway Administration has said there is no evidence that a locomotive in the rear is more dangerous.

This was an unprecedented incident in the 12-year history of Metrolink. Given that nothing causing this extensive an amount of damage or loss of life has happened before, one would have to give a "definite maybe" to the question of whether this could have been avoidable by foreseeable means.

Until the real experts -- the investigators who are working on this case -- weigh in with their findings, all the pretend experts we have heard from in the media are doing little more than feeding their own egos. Given how tragic this incident was, their intrusion amounts to little more than unwelcome advice.

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