Wednesday, March 16, 2016

One Year After a Metrolink Engineer's Death, Agencies Largely Ignore Rail Safety at Oxnard Crash Scene

In 2016, Metrolink added freight locomotives to every train set, causing premature wear on braking systems - Click for larger image (

Mismatched Braking Systems on Metrolink Trains Presage Disaster

On October 1, 2015, I wrote about Southern California regional rail passenger carrier Metrolink’s decision to lease forty Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) freight locomotives. In September 2015, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) had notified Metrolink that serious safety deficiencies existed on their Hyundai-Rotem cabcars. The deficiencies involved the February 24, 2015 Oxnard Metrolink collision that injured scores of passengers and took the life of Metrolink Senior Engineer Glenn Steele.

When the NTSB informed Metrolink that its Hyundai-Rotem Cabcars were deficient, the agency added a freight locomotive to each train set - Click for larger image ( Oxnard, the “pilot”, a blade that rides just above track level at the front of each cabcar, had failed in a collision with the work truck. As the Metrolink cabcar swept over the truck, the pilot detached and disappeared into the wreckage. Speculation was strong that the detached pilot had contributed to the derailment of the cabcar and the several coaches riding behind it.

Information from NTSB to Metrolink and then via Dan Weikel of the L.A. Times to the public pointed to structural failure. The steel in both the pilot and its support struts was too porous to withstand the load of the Oxnard collision. In addition, welds between the struts and the pilot showed gaps or porosity that weakened the entire assembly. Confronted with an obvious public safety hazard, Metrolink made a snap decision to place a locomotive at each end of every train set.

On December 31, 2015, I rode on one of the first “double-ender” Metrolink trains traveling from Chatsworth to Los Angeles Union Station (LAUS). It was quite a sight to see a 420,000 lb. BNSF locomotive pulling a five-coach train back toward LAUS. The conductor on the train told me that both the BNSF locomotive and the Metrolink locomotive at the other end provided motive power while operating in either direction.

BNSF Locomotive No. 5644 pulls a Metrolink train from Chatsworth to Los Angeles Union Station - Click for larger image ( available statistics for the weight of each locomotive and various Metrolink coaches, I wrote in October 2015, “Riding on four axles, current Metrolink diesel locomotives weigh 280,000 lb. At over 420,000 lb., the six-axle BNSF freight locomotives are fifty percent heavier. A 2015 five-car Metrolink train weighed approximately 460,000 lb. By adding a freight locomotive at one end, each "heavy iron" BNSF train set will weigh 880,000 lb., an increase of ninety-one percent.”

The sole purpose of adding the BNSF locomotives was to assure that any motor vehicle encountered on the tracks would be obliterated. Still unclear was how the braking systems on a double-ender would perform while stopping a 440-ton train. I reflected my concern by titling my October 1, 2015 article, “Metrolink Plans for Live Brake-Tests of BNSF ‘Heavy Iron’ Train-Sets on Commuter Tracks”.

Many venerable Metrolink locomotives, such as No. 851 are two decades old and ill-maintained - Click for larger image ( the Chatsworth Station on March 15, 2016, I discovered the answer to my questions about “heavy iron” and braking safety. The answer is that Metrolink double-ender train sets appear to be unsafe. The newly configured Metrolink train sets are a hodgepodge of engines and coaches. The BNSF freight locomotives are better suited to dynamic (engine) braking, rather than using their pneumatic braking system. Each train set also includes an ill-maintained Metrolink locomotive pushing from the rear. In normal “stop and go” usage between Metrolink stations, both locomotives rely on their pneumatic braking systems.

The average Bombardier Bi-level coach in the Metrolink fleet has over one million miles under its belt - Click for larger image ( between the two locomotives are the heavy, steel-sheathed Hyundai-Rotem coaches and lighter monocoque aluminum Bombardier Bi-level coaches. While both locomotives rely on pneumatic “brake blocks” similar to old-fashioned brake shoes, the Hyundai-Rotem coaches employ outboard disk brakes. Depending on their state of refurbishment, the Bombardier Bi-level coaches appear to utilize various combinations of disk brake and block brake systems.

Each locomotive and coach in any train set connects to its mates with high-pressure air hoses. When the engineer applies the pneumatic brakes, every block or disk in the system activates, creating friction and heat, thus slowing the train. With such diversity in ages and types of braking systems, each wheel-truck may receive a different level of braking power, leading to different stress and patterns of wear.

Featuring outboard disk brakes and stainless steel sheathing, Hyundai-Rotem coaches and cabcars began service on Metrolink in 2010 - Click for larger image ( Metrolink’s own admission, the agency does not conduct major preventative maintenance or periodic overhauls of its locomotive fleet. The agency prefers, instead, to run its locomotives until breakdown, and then conduct maintenance sufficient only to get a broken locomotive back in service. While allowing its current fleet of locomotives to self-destruct on the tracks, Metrolink is spending $338 Million in taxpayer money on new "Tier-4" locomotives. Metrolink may or may not conduct preventative maintenance on its locomotive braking systems. Since Metrolink does not publish information regarding maintenance of braking systems, no one knows.

In addition to aging and mismatched locomotives, Bombardier Bi-level coaches, are included in virtually every Metrolink train set. With over one million miles of service each, wheels with flat spots are a common problem on Each BNSF freight locomotive weighs 420,000 pounds, thus increasing the weight of an average Metrolink train set by ninety-one percent - Click for larger image ( Bombardier Bi-level coaches. On those coaches, some wheel-trucks include retrofits to disk brakes while others appear to utilize the older brake-block systems. With so many mismatches and deficiencies elsewhere, the relatively small disk brakes on the newer Hyundai-Rotem coaches and cabcars absorb much of the total braking load.

With all of the mismatched coaches and locomotives, the easiest way to detect brake wear on a Metrolink train is to inspect the Hyundai-Rotem brake rotors, which ride outboard of the wheels. While conducting a casual inspection of the Hyundai-Rotem brakes, I was shocked to see that every visible brake rotor displayed thermal-fatigue cracks (heat checking) radiating from the hub towards the outside edges of the rotors.

Close inspection of the brake rotors on Metrolink's Hyundai-Rotem coaches shows thermal fatigue cracks and heat checking on the surface of the rotors - Click for larger image ( am not a metallurgical engineer, but I have driven many vehicles that include disk brakes. The Hyundai-Rotem disk brakes are larger and feature pneumatic actuation. Otherwise, automotive disk brakes are quite similar to the Hyundai-Rotem type. After an automotive brake inspection, no competent mechanic would allow me to drive away with extensive thermal damage evident on my rotors. With the heat-induced cracks that I recently discovered on Hyundai-Rotem brake rotors, why are those damaged safety components still rolling on Metrolink coaches today? As Metrolink knows from the deadly Glendale (2005), Chatsworth (2008) and Oxnard (2015) collisions, greater attention to safety might prevent the next Metrolink rail disaster.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Las Posas Road, Camarillo, CA - An Ongoing Rail Crossing Deathtrap

An overhead view of Las Posas Road and Fifth Street, Camarillo California soon after a recent Amtrak rail collision - Click for larger image (

Las Posas Road, Camarillo, CA - An Ongoing Rail Crossing Deathtrap

On February 23, 2015, a Metrolink passenger train struck a Ford F-450 work truck and trailer at the intersection of Fifth St. and Rice Ave. near Oxnard, California. Scores of passengers were injured and one week later, Senior Engineer Glenn Steele succumbed to his injuries. Dismayed by the number of recent rail collisions at that site, I researched and wrote about that grade crossing and its many safety deficiencies. Later, I created a website that featured both problems and solutions for that troubled location at

Minimal safety features and many distractions are evident at the 5th & Rice grade crossing in Oxnard, California - Click for larger image ( Representative Julia Brownley (D-Agoura Hills) has taken a special interest in the 5th & Rice Grade crossing. Recently, through her staff, she contacted Mr. Marc Gerstel, a person injured in the February 2015 collision. Brownley’s office told Gerstel that the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) would soon visit the site and conduct a safety evaluation at the Fifth and Rice grade crossing. If so, that would be the first substantive action taken by any public agency or corporation involved with the operation and safety of that deadly grade crossing.

The Fifth and Rice grade crossing in Oxnard is both the busiest and the most hazardous commercial rail crossing in Ventura County. In the past decade, it has produced more rail related deaths and injuries than any other crossing in the county. Even so, two grade crossings in nearby Camarillo now vie for the title of “deadliest rail crossing in Ventura County”.

Amtrak, Metrolink and Union Pacific Railroad share the Coast Line across the Oxnard Plain in Ventura County, California. All three have experienced collisions with vehicles in that area - Click for larger image ( 5:50 AM on August 24, 2012, between Pleasant Valley Road and Las Posas Road, a Metrolink passenger train bound for Los Angeles struck a semi-truck and trailer that had slowed to make a turn into a nearby farm field. In that collision, both the truck driver and his passenger sustained non-fatal injuries.

On December 30, 2013 at 10:49 AM, as an Amtrak train was passing by, a car entered the grade crossing at Fifth Street and Las Posas Road. The resulting collision sent the car into the side of a railroad service truck, which was standing nearby. The driver of the first vehicle died at the scene and the railroad service worker received injuries resulting from the accident.

The Amtrak Surfliner in Moorpark California, heading at full speed toward the Oxnard Plain - Click for larger image ( January 24, 2014 at 10:30 AM, crews responded to a train collision at Fifth Street and Las Posas Road in Camarillo. At that grade crossing, a seventy-seven year old woman drove her minivan into the side of a passing Amtrak train. The driver, identified as Misty Jill Wood succumbed to her injuries at the scene. A Union Pacific Railroad worker in a nearby truck received moderate injuries. There were no injuries among the passengers on the northbound Amtrak Pacific Surfliner train.

On the evening of March 1, 2015, less than two weeks after the Oxnard Metrolink collision, a passenger vehicle stopped on the tracks at Fifth Street and Pleasant Valley Road in Camarillo. Moments after the two occupants of the passenger car exited the vehicle; an Amtrak passenger train heading for Los Angeles struck and sent the mangled vehicle into a nearby ditch. No injuries resulted from the collision.

The deadly grade crossing at Las Posas Road and Fifth Street, Camarillo, California - Photo courtesy of Google Streetview - Click for larger image ( 8:25 AM on April 23, 2015, less than two months after the Oxnard Metrolink collision, a Union Pacific freight train collided with a white Ford Explorer at the intersection of Fifth Street and Las Posas Road in Camarillo. Driver Timothy Newhouse, a fifty-seven year old man from Rialto, California drove through the crossing gate arm and into the side of the freight train. According to officers called to the scene, the vehicle rolled three or four times before coming to a rest in a nearby ditch. The driver succumbed to his injuries at the scene. There were no other injuries.

At 2:05 PM on September 21, 2015, a pedestrian stepped on to the tracks near Fifth Street and Pleasant Valley Road in Camarillo. Moments later, a moving Amtrak train struck and killed that pedestrian. The incident appeared to be a suicide, but detectives responded to investigate. There was little else reported about that deadly incident.

As seen at this location in Moorpark, vehicle skid marks, worn safety markings and minimum standard safety devices are hallmarks of most grade crossings in Ventura County, California - Click for larger image ( 10:30 AM on November 21, 2015, the latest in a string of deadly train collisions occurred at the Fifth Street and Las Posas Road grade crossing in Camarillo. According to the California Highway Patrol, at the time of the collision, the crossing gate arm was down and the safety lights were flashing. For unknown reasons, Mr. Brian Kuczynski, twenty-three, of Camarillo drove his car through the crossing gate and into the side of a moving Amtrak train. After Kuczynski's car hit the crossing arm and moving train, it travelled 171 feet and into a nearby ditch. Flown by helicopter to Los Robles Hospital & Medical Center in Thousand Oaks with major injuries Kuczynski later died. There were no other injuries.

The infamous Fifth Street and Rice Avenue grade crossing in Oxnard still holds the record in Ventura County. In that regard, it is the worst of the worst throughout the Oxnard Plain. Still, in little more than the past three years, seven train collisions at either Pleasant Valley Road or Las Posas Road grade crossings resulted in five deaths and four injuries. If this pace continues, we can expect an average of two additional fatalities at the Las Posas and Pleasant Valley rail crossings each year.

In Ventura County it is common to see vehicles stop on the active railroad tracks of the Union Pacific Pacific Coast Line - Click for larger image ( that only the pedestrian fatality at Pleasant Valley Road was a suicide, why have so many motorists collided with moving trains at those two crossings? It is easy enough to pass off these collisions to inattentive or distracted drivers. With mobile telephones, voice activated apps, GPS navigation systems and sound-deadening insulation in our vehicles; it is easy to become self-absorbed and inattentive to unexpected safety threats. When driving across the Oxnard Plain, verdant strawberry and vegetable fields, light traffic and hazy morning sunshine can lull a motorist into a false sense of security.

The Federal Railroad Administration (FAR) sets the minimum standards for railroad grade crossings. The minimum requirements include a “crossbuck”, which is a large “X” shaped sign that reads “Railroad – Crossing”, at least two flashing red lights adjacent to the crossbuck and appropriate painted safety lines in the roadway. This configuration applies to both directions of travel. At the Fifth and Rice crossing, there is an additional red warning signal. It resides on a horizontal strut that extends from the crossbuck mast over one lane of southbound Rice Ave. traffic. Additionally, automatic gates descend to block the roadway whenever a train approaches. As such, all three of the grade crossings in question meet only the 1986 minimum federal standards for “active traffic control devices” at multi-lane grade crossings.

Developed as a safety warning sign for motorists in the early twentieth century, the "crossbuck" is still included in every highway rail crossing in the country - Click for larger image ( revised in 2007, the bulk of the Federal Highway Administration’s “Railroad-Highway Grade Crossing Handbook” derives from the 1986 version of that document. In essence, “active traffic control devices” have changed little in the past thirty years. In the 1986 update, the Federal Highway Administration responded to rapid urbanization and concomitant increases in both vehicular and train traffic across the country. Until that time, passive warning systems were the norm.

Beginning with the 1986 standards, there was an attempt to update warning light systems beyond the legacy systems still utilized in many rural and urban locations. Looking back at the history of warning lights, the first active warning system consisted of a railroad worker swinging a red lantern back and forth to warn motorists of an approaching train. Later railroad safety engineers introduced the “wig wag”, which featured a pendulum arm that contained a red warning light. As a train approached, the lighted wig wag signal swung back and forth. In doing so, the wig wag mimicked a railroad worker's lantern swinging at arm's length.

Watch as old Southern Pacific Locomotive No. 3100
departs the station at Orange Empire Railroad Museum.

The major improvement in 1986 was to require two red warning lights that flashed in sequence. The timing of the flashes mimicked both a wig wag and the railroad lantern of old. Despite the advent of light emitting diodes (LEDs), most flashing light signals still utilize low wattage bulbs, varying from 16 to 36 watts. Even with reflectors behind the low wattage bulbs, a light within the dark red glass of the “roundel” can be difficult to see during daylight hours. Over eight percent of men experience color blindness in the red spectrum. That means that almost one man in twelve might see a flashing signal light, but not detect it as a red warning light.

Part of the "Sealed Corridor Project" in Ventura County California the new safety warning system at Sycamore Ave and Los Angeles Ave. includes LED safety lights, pedestrian gates and additional safety gates for vehicles - Click for larger image ( automated safety gates found at “active traffic control grade crossings” create another area of concern. Designed to activate not more than three seconds after the safety warning lights begin to flash, the motorized gates take time to arrive at their “down position”. So long as the gates are down prior to the arrival of a moving train, they meet legal requirements. Regardless of a gate length of up to thirty-eight feet, only three red lights are required to meet federal standards. The red light at the tip of the gate arm burns steadily, while the other two flash alternately.

If we were to recreate a mid-morning scene of a typical Las Posas Road train collision, here is what the errant driver might see. Approaching the tracks from the north, the morning sun would be coming in the driver’s side window, possibly dazzling his or her eyes. As the train approaches at full speed, it might appear as a dot on the horizon or not be visible at all. Whether distracted, speeding or fully attentive, the driver may or may not see the two low-wattage red warning lights flashing in their roundels. Likewise, the driver may not see the slender gate arm descend from vertical to its horizontal (closed) position. By the time the driver notices the flashing lights, the safety gate and the train, it may too late to avoid a catastrophic collision.

The Amtrak Surfliner, seen here at Chatsworth Station in the San Fernando Valley is a high speed passenger train that traverses the dangerous grade crossings in the Oxnard Plan several times each day - Click for larger image ( has changed since enactment of the 1986 grade crossing standards. Our driving experience now includes cup holders, mobile telephones, integrated information and entertainment systems, and texting while driving. The result is a quantum leap in potential distractions available to drivers today. The attitude of many who comment on relevant websites is “drivers beware”. If you drive into the side of a moving train, it is probably your fault, they write. Your own death or dismemberment, they say, proves their point. In reality, the FRA minimum standard developed for grade crossings in 1986 are often insufficient to warn motorists of impending collisions with moving trains.

The author, James McGillis, with safety advocates Coney the Traffic Cone and Plush Kokopelli at the infamous Fifth & Rice Grade Crossing in Oxnard, CA - Click fro larger image ( five of the recent train collisions at Las Posas Road and Fifth Street happening between 8:30 AM and 2:30 PM, further assessment of both natural light and traffic control signal lighting is in order. With Fifth Street creating a buffer for northbound vehicular traffic, almost all of the Las Posas Road train collisions involve southbound vehicular traffic. From morning until midafternoon, the sun may interfere with the driver’s ability to see the obsolete warning signals and other faded safety markings at Las Posas Rd., Pleasant Valley Rd. and Rice Ave. grade crossings.

Perhaps the pending CPUC investigation of the Rice Avenue grade crossing will give impetus Sealed Corridor traffic safety features at the three most deadly railroad grade crossings in Ventura County. In the interest of safety for all who travel the Oxnard Plain in motor vehicles and passenger trains, I hope so.

Warren Buffett's NV Energy and the PUC Conspire to Destroy Rooftop Solar in Nevada

Leaving California, the land of solar; entering Nevada, where rooftop solar is dead - Click for larger image (

Warren Buffett's NV Energy and the PUC Conspire to Destroy Rooftop Solar in Nevada

In February 2016, I traveled from Los Angeles to my home state of Nevada. For the past three years, new hires in the rooftop solar industry have been an engine of job creation in the Golden State. Economists up and down California cite the solar industry for its 20,000 new jobs in 2015 alone. Those jobs went mostly to the young and able. Able to sell door to door; able to handle thorny customer service issues; able to mount rooftop solar panels.

The Brightsource Solar-Thermal generating plant at Ivanpah, California - Click for larger image ( I traversed Interstate I-15 North from the Los Angeles Basin to the Mojave Desert, I anticipated that Nevada, the Silver State, would be keeping pace with California in New Energy production. Arizona, which is Nevada’s more populous neighbor to the east, had already killed rooftop solar in favor of “Clean Coal”, Nuclear and Natural Gas fired electrical production. Surely, the State of Nevada could do better than their troglodyte cousins who live across the dwindling stream of the Colorado River.

As I left Baker, California, I could not wait to see the Ivanpah Solar-Thermal Station, near Primm, Nevada. The Mojave is a large desert, so one must remember that the Ivanpah Valley is still within the borders of California. There, where developers thought that no one would notice, California’s Governor Gerry Brown had authorized the most destructive “green energy” plant in the country. Famous for the displacement and killing of many desert Clark Mountain, in the Mojave Desert. The area has seen a 90% drop in the desert tortoise population in the past few decades - Click for larger image ( and the continued flash frying of countless birds, this ill-conceived power plant helps no one other than the old Google Corporation (Now “Alphabet” Soup) and its other ultra-rich investors.

With its three grandiose towers glowing brighter than the sun, Brightsource Energy’s solar folly in the desert is a defining boondoggle and tax-dodge for the rich and infamous. On my outbound trip, all three towers shone like molten pillars of salt. On my return trip, one tower was dark. If you pass that way, do not stare at the lighted towers. More than several seconds of exposure could damage your retinas. Along I-15 there are no solar-thermal warning signs, although there should be. The unearthly scenery at the power plant makes you feel like you are already in Las Vegas.

A former SolarCity employee in her "Bring Back Solar" t-shirt at a Bernie Sanders campaign rally in Henderson, Nevada in February 2016 - Click for larger image ( days later, while attending a rally for Bernie Sanders in Henderson, Nevada, I met a (former) crew from SolarCity, Las Vegas. They were campaigning hard for the public to realize that the Nevada Public Utilities Commission (PUC) had recently killed the rooftop solar industry in Nevada. It had also killed 550 SolarCity jobs in Nevada. Through the application of an onerous negative "net metering" structure, the PUC made it impossible for even industry leader Solar City to continue installing rooftop solar.

When one thinks of the West, they often think of sunny Southern California. We also recall that Southern Nevada and Southern Arizona are deserts. Almost anyone could tell you that those two states are “hot, dry and sunny” on most days. As with California, both Arizona and Nevada are perfect places for rooftop solar installations. For reasons of fear and conservative orthodoxy, Arizona killed rooftop solar several years ago.

In his Henderson, Nevada campaign speech, Bernie Sanders advocated for the return of rooftop solar to Nevada, where SolarCity alone lost 550 jobs - Click for larger image (, what happened recently in Nevada? Why would the Nevada PUC nix the development of such a natural and benevolent power source? Look no further than NV Energy, the private utility that provides electrical power to 2.4 million of Nevada’s 2.8 million residents. On May 29, 2013, NV Energy announced its acquisition by MidAmerican Energy Holdings Company (now Berkshire Hathaway Energy). In other words, NV Energy is now a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, Inc. whose chairperson and primary stockholder is billionaire Warren Buffett.

Apparently, Warren Buffett was still smarting from the ongoing decrease of coal shipments on his Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railroad. With coal in decline all over the country, Warren Buffett seized on solar as easy prey. The rooftop solar industry as we know it is less than a decade old. In a classic “Old Energy” vs. “New Energy” struggle, Old Energy won. “New energy be damned”, I picture Warren muttering under his breath. “Coal and natural gas are the energy stocks of the future”, he said to himself. Whether Warren Buffet lobbied directly or indirectly with the Nevada PUC, they got his message and destroyed the rooftop solar industry in the state.

A crowd of thousands, many of whom were displaced workers in the rooftop solar industry attended Bernie Sanders New Energy rally in Henderson, Nevada in February 2016 - Click for larger image ( about it. Once you have solar panels on your roof, with minimal cleaning and maintenance, you just sit inside your home and enjoy low cost energy produced by the sun. Under the Warren Buffett, Old Energy scheme, you will sit inside your home and pay for massive coal or gas-fired power plants hidden far out in the desert. Fossil fuel power plants require a steady stream of carbon stock, which in turn creates a steady stream of revenue for Berkshire Hathaway.

With Buffet’s monopoly control over electrical energy in Nevada, there was no contest. As expected, the PUC bet on what they believed was a long-term winner. If that winner created higher consumer costs, increases in global warming and more money for the billionaire class, so be it. Warren Buffet did not acquire his current wealth of $71 billion by playing nice. With his wan smile, the 85 year-old hustler might as well be telling all Nevada electrical consumers to “shove it where the sun doesn’t shine”. In their boldfaced destruction of the rooftop solar industry, that is what he and the Nevada PUC did.

Plush Kokopelli supports candidate Bernie Sanders and the campaign to Bring Back Solar in Nevada - Click for larger image ( California and many other states can promote rooftop solar installations as the backbone of a new industry, why should Nevada kowtow to a billionaire and his cadre of wealthy stockholders? If Nevada were to allow a public referendum on the issue, rooftop solar would return to Nevada in a heartbeat. Pro solar advocates collected over 18,000 signatures during the recent Nevada Caucuses. Only days later, a political action committee (PAC) named "Citizens for Solar and Energy Fairness", designed to "advocate for, or oppose" net metering programs filed a legal challenge to the pro-solar referendum. In a recent statement to Politico, NV Energy admitted that it is "supporting" the new anti-solar PAC.

Residents of Nevada, it is time to put an end to this tomfoolery and allow a vote for Nevada to Bring Back Solar.