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Railroad fatalities on Metrolink tracks drop to all-time low

  15 January, 2000
 Only One Fatality Reported in Calendar Year 1999

Metrolink experienced its lowest rate of fatality incidents in 1999 with only one reported fatality. That compares with 13 fatalities in 1998 and 16 in 1997. Over the past five years, there were 407 railroad related fatalities in all of California - 51 involving Metrolink trains.

Metrolink Chief Executive Officer David Solow attributes the drop in fatal incidents to public education and awareness. “People are just more familiar with the fact that Metrolink trains are running, are quiet, and are running faster,” he said. “We’ve been working for seven years to educate the public about rail safety, and it seems to be paying off.”

As train traffic has increased significantly in Southern California, the number of railroad crossing fatality incidents has shot up. Hundreds of incidents and dozens of fatalities have occurred since 1990, involving either vehicles at rail crossings where trains always have the right-of-way or pedestrians who trespass on the tracks.

Even though total fatalities are down, there have been hundreds of “near misses” that could have turned into tragedies, according to Ed Pederson, Metrolink's Manager of Safety. “Often, the situation could have turned out differently if timing had been a split second different.”

Metrolink safety officials say one of the biggest contributors to railroad incidents is the public’s misperception about the risks involving trains. They see a train down the tracks, and it looks like it’s far away and moving slowly. “It sneaks up on them,” says Pederson. The public also misjudges how wide trains are and stand too close to the tracks. The track widths of standard railroads are 4 feet 8 inches wide, but a Metrolink train itself is 10 feet across, about five feet wider than the track.

There are two distinctly different population groups most likely to be involved in a fatality - males aged 18 to 28 and mature male drivers over the age of 60. In the last five years, three fatalities have occurred when mature drivers drove through crossing gates that were down indicating a train was coming down the tracks. Metrolink safety officials have focused on reaching the first group through schools and driving academies, but have found reaching mature drivers to be a challenge. Many of these visiting senior centers, for example, may not be driving any longer.

The L.A. County Sheriff’s Metrolink Unit has also put enforcement efforts into place locally to deter motorists who ignore railroad-crossing warnings. California Assembly Bill 923, authored by Assembly Member Robert Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys), went into effect on Jan. 1 and raises the penalty for motorist violations at railroad crossings from $ 104 to $271. A third violation will cost up to $500, depending on the county where the citation is given. These are comparable fines paid by motorists caught violating carpool lane rules or running red streetlights.

Fines from violations will help fund driver education about rail safety and the purchase of additional cameras to catch violators in the act and provide evidence needed to cite them. Metrolink currently has two cameras snapping photos of motorists ignoring warnings at crossings. In addition, future technologies such as cab signaling that would convey information in time to halt an oncoming train if a motorist was stuck on the tracks may one day be standard.

Railroad fatality statistics do not include suicides. Metrolink, like all railroads, follow the same reporting standard prescribed by the Federal Railroad Administration in tabulating railroad fatalities. According to state and federal agencies railroad suicide fatalities are considered intentional acts by the party involved.

The Los Angeles based Southern California Regional Rail Authority is the parent agency which operates Metrolink long-distance commuter rail service. With more than 46 train stations serving a network of 416-miles of track throughout six counties, a total of 29,000 average daily commuters have come to rely on the train service to take them to work and back.

Metrolink 10 Jan 2000

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This file last updated: Wednesday, 19-Jan-2000 19:41:53 EST
Copyright © David Fry 1999

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