Some Metrolink trains still lack anti-crash system

Metrolink spokesman Scott Johnson on a train platform at Union Station.
Metrolink spokesman Scott Johnson on a train platform at Union Station.
Sharon McNary/KPCC

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Congress this week acted to extend the deadline for railroads to install new anti-collision safety systems. Most passengers of the Metrolink regional commuter rail network are already protected by it, but significant gaps remain.

About two-thirds of Metrolink's 512 miles of tracks are equipped with the system known as "positive train control." The remainder of the tracks are owned by other railroads that have not completed the installations, said Metrolink spokesman Scott Johnson.

Positive train control uses GPS, Wi-Fi, cellular technology and computer software to override manual train controls to slow or stop a locomotive that's moving too fast or at risk of a hitting another train.

"The Riverside Line is actually owned and operated by Union Pacific, so that track does not currently have positive train control," Johnson said. That line from Union Station to downtown Riverside serves nearly 100,000 riders each month.

A passenger boarding the Ventura County Metrolink line in East Ventura would ride past three stations on Union Pacific-owned tracks that do not have positive train control, while the journey from the Moorpark station to Union Station does.

"From a passenger standpoint, they don't feel any different," Johnson said of the gaps.

Beginning in June, Metrolink became the nation's first rail system to install and use positive train control.

Metrolink's head-on collision with a Union Pacific train in Chatsworth caused 25 deaths in 2008. It spurred Congress to require the new safety systems by the end of 2015.  Metrolink is on track to meet that deadline for its own locomotives and track.

However, it must work with three other railroads — Union Pacific, BNSF Railway and North County Transit District — to finish out the system. Amtrak says its Southern California trains will be equipped with positive train control by the end of the year.

Larger railroads have struggled with the deadline. Edward Hamberger, head of the Association of American Railroads, blamed the complexity, new technology and large equipment orders needed to install the systems on 70,000 miles of tracks and 22,000 locomotives.

His industry group and rail shipping customers fought the deadline. Some tweeted ominous warnings that America's trains wouldn't run and store shelves would be empty.

"Well, it wasn't a threat. What it was was a reaction to the statute and the regulations," Hamberger said.

Union Pacific was among the railroads pleading for the three-year extension that both houses of Congress approved this week.

Its Southern California trains and tracks should complete installation of the system by the end of this year, said spokesman Francisco Castillo. Getting it installed nationwide will take Union Pacific until about 2018, he said.

Rep. Adam Schiff authored the 2008 bill requiring the new system, and he fought the three-year deadline extension to 2018. He wanted railroads that were unable to meet the December 2015 deadline to get individual extensions of time from the Federal Railroad Administration.

Still, he lauded Metrolink.

"Metrolink still has some distance to go with its partners on the line, but it's made more progress than most other rail lines," said Schiff. "It's technology that's proven to save lives. We're going to be kicking ourselves if we see another accident."

Map showing where positive train control is in effect on Metrolink trains:

(Click for larger map)