The Metrolink Tragedy Underscores Our Transportation Nightmare

metrolink1.jpg
ABC News photo

My Friday-morning post on this blog concerned the higher down payments — 15% instead of 10% — that many mortgage lenders began requiring last week. I wrote that first-time homebuyers would have a difficult time coming up with that much cash unless they lived far, far away — in the High Desert or the Inland Empire, where homes are more reasonably priced. The tradeoff for many, I wrote, would be a nightmarish daily commute.

A reader weighed in, saying people who didn’t want to commute could simply opt for a condo. I responded that people with kids and pets often wanted a place with a yard.

“Then move to Inland Empire and take the train into L.A.,” the commenter replied. “Just how it works in New York and Chicago. What’s the problem?”

I didn’t get a chance to respond to that comment, but if I had, I would have said that L.A. is nothing like New York or Chicago. Metrolink and Amtrak trains are overpriced (a Metrolink monthly pass for the San Bernardino-Union Station line costs around $300); don’t go where most people need to go; don’t run often enough; and are unreliable.

A few hours later, after a Metrolink train crashed head-on into a freight train in Chatsworth and killed more than two dozen people, I was reminded that “dangerous” should be added to the list.

Unlike rail systems in other cities, Metrolink and Amtrak trains share tracks with freight trains. Apparently, the only thing standing between SoCal passenger trains and tragedy is a red light.

Furthermore, as evidenced by the incident in Glendale three years ago, where a man parked in the path of an oncoming train, killing 11 people, the tracks are completely unprotected in many places, making them easy targets for the suicidal and homicidal.

Yet the choice for many who work in Los Angeles but can afford only to live in places like Riverside or Moorpark is to sit in freeway traffic for hours, or take the train. Because of our state’s failure to install a reliable public transportation system years ago, commuters are forced to decide between two undesirable alternatives.

The Subway to the Sea would help immensely. As with all public transportation, it would allow people to live closer to their jobs without burdening the roads with extra vehicles. It’s how so many people can live in Manhattan without owning a car.

In the meantime, Amtrak and Metrolink should reassure passengers by investing in the 30-year-old warning-system technology that might have stopped this terrible accident from occurring.

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  • Janet

    Human error. Both of the Metrolink tragedies mentioned were caused by extremely irresponsible heinous individuals. The cost to fence in a complete rail system or dig and tunnel for a subway are astronomical. These costs require raising taxes. Introduce a new bill to raise taxes for new transportation, see if the voting public will pass it this time. I bet not. Until they do though, I don’t think people can keep complaining.

  • Janet

    Oh, one more thing. The 30 year old warning system you mentioned would not have prevented either accident, there was not enough time for it to respond and stop the train in either incident.

  • http://losangeles.redfin.com/blog/author/cindy.allen Cindy Allen

    Janet: The Chatsworth tragedy was caused by an “extremely irresponsible heinous” individual? Don’t you think that’s a bit premature? We know nothing about the engineer, whether he saw the light, whether it malfunctioned, or what exactly happened. All we have is the word of one Metrolink spokesperson who irresponsibly shot her mouth off less than a day after the crash, saying that the engineer “ignored” a signal. Does she not know what “ignored” implies? That he deliberately ran the light. Why would anyone do that? I guess it’s possible that the guy was suicidal or homicidal, but how would she know what was in his mind? He was dead seconds later. Incidentally, she has now “resigned.” http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/bottleneck/2008/09/breaking-news-l.html
    If technology couldn’t have prevented this crash, there is something wrong. Why, after the red light was run, was there not sufficient time for the dispatchers to warn the engineer and stop the accident? One flimsy red light is all that stands between Metrolink and tragedy?

  • carlivar

    I was the original commenter that you referred to, mentioning Metrolink as an option in the previous post comments. My heart goes out to the victims of that crash. It is terrible.

    I absolutely agree that SoCal needs to update its rail system. In this case, upgrading the capacity will solve a safety issue as well.

    I have some further points in mind to make, but I’m not going to get into it now. I don’t think it would be appropriate. Actually I question whether your blog post is even appropriate. Using this tragedy as an “I told you so” already? Perhaps not in poor taste, but certainly dubious.

  • Janet

    Cindy

    I apologize if I came off kind of harsh. I love your point of view. You are always spot on, in my opinion.

    I do agree that it was premature for her to make that statement. I don’t think that was something she decided on her own though. I think she showed unprofessional behavior in her emotional “breakdown” as well.

    It has been determined that the light was red. I hope it wasn’t intentionally ignored or missed by complacency. Maybe the engineer had a medical problem of some sort I don’t know. I apoligize again, if I sounded harsh.

    My point is if the public wants better public transportation,the public has to pay for it.

  • http://losangeles.redfin.com/blog/author/cindy.allen Cindy Allen

    Janet, no need whatsoever to apologize. Thank you for reading and commenting.

    I actually feel terrible for that dead engineer’s family. It’s bad enough that their loved one died, but now they have to fend off media questions about how he “ignored” the light. What a horrible, ill-advised choice of words by the Metrolink spokesperson — unless she knows for a fact that the engineer knew the light was red and decided to ignore it. The chances of that seem slim.

    I think most people think train travel is very safe, and they don’t worry about warning systems for that reason. Maybe that will change now. But what was in place for this crash seems very flimsy.

  • http://losangeles.redfin.com/blog/author/cindy.allen Cindy Allen

    Carlivar, my intent is not to say “I told you so.” It was a weird coincidence that this came up on the blog the very day of the crash. I’ve taken Metrolink and Amtrak many times and have experienced firsthand what a subpar system it is. The crash is on everyone’s mind today. It seems appropriate to address it.

    Amtrak trains are often late. Once I decided to take a train home from an Angels game to Oceanside. Someone jumped in front of a train in the Valley and the train was four hours late. I left the game at 3:45 and got home at 11 p.m.

    A friend of mine who lived in Mission Viejo and worked in San Diego had to buy a second car to leave at the Metrolink station because the station was nowhere near his job. I understand that’s a common practice among Metrolink riders.

    Also, if you ride these trains, you know that they often stop multiple times in the middle of trips because they need to let other trains pass. If all that stands between these trains and a collision is a red light, something is wrong.

    It’s a terrible tragedy. Sadly, sometimes that’s what it takes to force things to change.

  • Patty

    How judgmental and poorly written! When there is a car accident does that “underscore your opinion that driving is dangerous?” This is not a failure of the entire system, but one very tragic accident.

  • http://losangeles.redfin.com/blog/author/cindy.allen Cindy Allen

    Actually, Patty, driving IS dangerous. When 50,000 people die every year in auto accidents, that’s a dangerous activity. That’s why there are airbags and seat-belt laws. But there’s a big difference between assuming personal risk while driving a car and entrusting your safety to a public-transportation agency.
    Train travel is relatively safe, although Metrolink’s fatality record is one of the worst in the country. Here’s an article:
    http://www.latimes.com/news/printedition/front/la-me-record15-2008sep15,0,191011.story

  • carlivar

    What’s “dangerous” is completely relative. Saying something is “dangerous” because 50,000 people die every year means absolutely nothing without context. 50k died out of how many millions (billions?) of trips total? I would not call that very dangerous at all.

    Look, we have to improve the public transportation in this country. No question about it. But, going back to the ORIGINAL point that started this whole thing, I’d still like to know how exactly Los Angeles is supposed to provide affordable living without negative repercussions and unintended consequences. In the end if you fight the free market, someone’s paying for it. Maybe the government should buy up a bunch of land and provide generic housing pods for everyone? We can implement a society like in THX 1138.

    So anyway, you’ve made two fairly controversial blog posts. The first was complaining about the lack of affordable housing and saying the government should do something about it. The second now complains about public transportation and that the government should do something about it. And of course everyone wants the government to do something about health care, too. And bailout the failing financial firms. And bailout the American automotive industry, but not without also supporting the unions that have ruined the American automotive industry.

    I have one question: is there anything Nanny Government SHOULDN’T do?

  • Dianna Macias

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  • http://www.edhardyworld.co.uk ed hardy

    I think most people think train travel is very safe, and they don’t worry about warning systems for that reason. Maybe that will change now. But what was in place for this crash seems very flimsy.