Sunday, September 27, 2009

What Do Cute Kittens And the LA Times Story - Death on the Rails - Have in Common?

This weekend's Los Angeles Times story - Death on the Rails - begins with the statistics that have long proven how riding the Metrolink - and in particular driving near it - may be hazardous to your health. The story's main writer, Doug Smith, also re-explains the well known political reasons why the agency that runs the Metrolink has been unable to internally fix its problems.

But Smith - and his team of writer Nathan Olivares-Giles, researcher Maloy Moore and data analyst Sandra Poindexter - then go beyond what we already know to give a detailed proposal about how the Metrolink system can be made safer in several specific ways - and in relatively short periods of time compared to the major long term needed improvements. The article then tackles why this has not been done in the past - and then lists the external political obstacles that have to be cleared to fix the system.

And, in this city, the Los Angeles Times is increasingly only place where this kind of intensive research and reporting and solution finding is done on a consistent basis and on a wide range of issues.

Unfortunately, the LA Times and all other print media now face an increasingly on-line future in which the expensive content the public needs to be protected from harm is often not the content that drives the necessary number of page views to keep those institutions alive.

So the the next time local critics complain about the Los Angeles Times and its on-line photo albums of cute kittens - they should remember that one day some particularly cute kitten might pay for the story that will save their lives.

Click the lnk above for the full story or you can read below the story's opening:,0,6617016,print.story

Death on the rails in L.A.
An analysis of crash data suggests that Metrolink could significantly reduce accidents by targeting a few particularly dangerous crossings.

By Doug Smith

September 27, 2009

Although Metrolink safety lapses drew national attention last year when 25 people were killed in a head-on collision with a freight train, many more have died from commuter trains hitting automobiles and pedestrians.

Over the 15 years leading up to the deadly crash in Chatsworth, accidents involving trains running on Metrolink's system killed 218 other people, according to a detailed examination of accident records by The Times. Through September 2008, the number killed on the Metrolink commuter rail system was 244. Hundreds more people sustained nonfatal injuries.

Critics say Metrolink leaders have not paid enough attention to safety and have done little to upgrade dangerous intersections where streets cross the tracks. In particular, the public railway has failed to adopt the sorts of safety systems and improvements developed and widely used by its sister agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Some of the clearest examples are in the San Fernando Valley, which includes two of Metrolink's most dangerous crossings -- at Buena Vista Street in Burbank and Sunland Boulevard in Sun Valley.

For the thousands of motorists who pass through it every day, the rail crossing at Buena Vista and San Fernando Boulevard can be a hair-raising passage. The intersection is a maze of sharp turns and confusing signals that require drivers to move with split-second timing.

Twice in recent years, that timing has gone fatally wrong just as a train was bearing down fast, leading to the deaths of motorists.

On Jan. 6, 2003, Jacek "Jack" Wysocki rolled his Ford truck into the path of a Metrolink train traveling 79 mph. The 63-year-old driver was killed along with one train passenger; two train cars derailed and flipped, injuring 20 other Metrolink riders.

Exactly three years later, 76-year-old Maureen Osborn was killed after turning in front of a Metrolink commuter going 75 mph. Osborn's car was dragged a third of a mile before the train could stop.

Both tragedies could have been predicted. Buena Vista and similar Metrolink intersections had all seen previous accidents and near-collisions.

Metrolink took no responsibility

They also could have been prevented. But if any Metrolink official saw trouble coming, records show no evidence of action. After each accident, leaders of the regional rail system took no responsibility, choosing instead to invoke a standard industry convention: They blamed the deaths on motorists who "tried to beat the train."

Even after a blistering 2003 critique of the crossing's design and signal system by the National Transportation Safety Board, nothing was done to correct Buena Vista's flaws. Facing no legal obligation to follow federal recommendations, Metrolink, Burbank authorities and the California Public Utilities Commission -- the state agency responsible for train safety -- made only minor refinements.

One expert says the history behind the Buena Vista-San Fernando crossing reveals a glaring flaw in the mind-set of Metrolink leaders: Because they have focused more on building ridership than on improving safety, even hazards that could have been eliminated or sharply reduced have been allowed to remain. Only after the horrific Chatsworth crash did Metrolink upgrade the status of its safety unit so that it reported directly to chief executive David R. Solow.

"I call it the culture of denial and deflection," said Najmedin Meshkati, a professor of engineering at USC whose studies of human factors in accidents have led him to become a vocal critic of Metrolink.

That culture also stands in stark contrast to what is practiced by the MTA, the largest of five rail agencies that contribute funds to Metrolink.

That agency, based only blocks from Metrolink's Los Angeles office, also had a record of numerous accidents and deaths after initiating its Blue Line light-rail service between downtown and Long Beach in 1990. Since then, the MTA's safety section has examined the causes and retrofitted many of the worst crossings with systems to prevent accidents. As a result, the Blue Line accident rate has dropped significantly.

And, again, the rest of the story is at this link:,0,6617016,print.story

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