Friday, April 29, 2016

$1.5 Million Allocated to Design a Railroad Grade Separation at Fifth St. & Rice Ave., Oxnard, California


Rice Ave. southbound at Fifth Street, Oxnard, California, which is the deadliest railroad grade crossing in Ventura County - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

$1.5 Million Allocated to Design a Railroad Grade Separation at Fifth St. & Rice Ave., Oxnard, California

In April 2015, I published an article regarding the March 24, 2015 Metrolink collision in Oxnard, California. That predawn collision injured thirty-three passengers and took the life of Metrolink Senior Engineer Glenn Steele. With its daily traffic count of 35,000 vehicles, the Fifth Street and Rice Avenue (Fifth & Rice) grade crossing already ranked as the deadliest in Ventura County. During my April 2015 visit to the site, I noted that the southbound Rice Ave. approach to the crossing remained as derelict as it was prior to the collision.



Since then, I have published a series of rail-safety articles, each of which mentioned specific unsafe conditions at Fifth & Rice. To be fair, Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR) completed minor repairs to the traffic warning system and rebuilt a fence destroyed by the Metrolink cabcar during the collision. Now, thirteen months after the latest deadly collision at Fifth & Rice, the busy rail crossing still looks much as it has for decades.

Overhead view of the Fifth Street and Rice Ave. railroad grade crossing in Oxnard, California - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)In past articles, I have called out the UPRR, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), Rail Corridor Agency LOSSAN, Metrolink, the City of Oxnard and the Ventura County Transportation Commission (VCTC) for their sluggish response to the ongoing dangers at Fifth & Rice. Simple upgrades, such as repaving the Rice Ave. southbound approach, restriping its safety lines and adding additional pylons and street-level reflectors have not happened. Inexpensive changes of this type could militate against an accidental turn on to the UPRR tracks. It was just such a wrong turn that led to the 2015 Oxnard Metrolink collision.

According to evidence at the scene, all of the agencies listed in the previous paragraph dithered, delayed or ignored short-term fixes of the obvious deficiencies at Fifth & Rice. Meanwhile, one person made it her mission to help solve both the short-term and long-term safety issues existing there. That person is Congresswoman Julia Brownley (D-Westlake Village). Soon after the February 2015 Oxnard Metrolink collision, Brownley stepped up her communications with several agencies, including Caltrans, the CPUC and the Federal Railroad Administration.

An artists rendering of the proposed grade separation at Fifth Street and Rice Ave. in Oxnard, California - Click for larger image (htp://jamesmcgillis.com)In a March 2, 2015 letter to Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty and CPUC President Michael Picker, Brownley implored both agencies to free up some of the unallocated $42 million in federal safety grants then languishing within those agencies. On April 30, 2015, Dougherty wrote a letter to the Brownley, indicating that none of the rail grade crossings in Ventura County ranked high enough on the “priority diagnostic list” to warrant funding at this time.

In defense of CPUC actions, Dougherty sited $7.4 million in funds allocated to Ventura County in 2015. As the lead agency in the Sealed Corridor Project, Metrolink utilized those funds to upgrade warning and safety systems at three grade crossings in Simi Valley and another in Moorpark. Why Fifth & Rice, the busiest and deadliest commercial grade crossing in Ventura County received no mention or funding is a mystery of bureaucratic communications and cooperation.

Rice Ave. southbound approach to the rail grade crossing at Fifth Street in Oxnard, California (http://jamesmcgillis.com)In his April 30, 2015 letter to Brownley, Dougherty made the following statement: “The at-grade crossing at issue, on Rice Avenue in Oxnard, is equipped with median islands, quad gates, flashing lights, audible warning bells, and an interconnected traffic signal in addition to the required pavement markings and advance warning signage. Further improvements could be a grade separation. We will work with Ventura County to consider the State of California’s Section 190 Program as a possible funding source for this solution.”

Technically, everything that Dougherty wrote at that time is defensibly correct, but the actual conditions at that intersection are nowhere near as safe as state officials would have us believe. Here are my rebuttals, point by point:

“Median islands, quad gates, flashing lights, audible warning bells” – At the time of Dougherty’s letter, the support structure for the overhead warning lights, known as a crossbuck showed evidence of damage from an earlier traffic collision. Only after I published photos showing the perilous condition of the overhead safety equipment did the UPRR replace the entire unit.

“An interconnected traffic signal” – When a train approaches the crossing, the traffic signals on Rice Ave. turn red. The left turn signal from Fifth St. East to Rice Ave. North also turns red. When a train is present, those signals keep traffic northbound on Rice Ave. from crossing the tracks. Normally, the traffic signals approaching the tracks northbound work as intended.

As this big rig demonstrates, an unaware driver stopping at Fifth Street on Rice Ave. can block the Pacific Coast Line railroad tracks for several minutes, leading to a potential rail collision - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)“Interconnected traffic signal (cont.)” – Southbound on Rice Ave, the traffic signals do not provide adequate safety for vehicles stopping at Fifth St. The distance from the crosswalk at Fifth St. to the railroad tracks is less than fifty feet. As the major truck route to Naval Base Ventura County and the Port of Hueneme, hundreds of big rigs travel south on Rice Ave. every day. Inexperienced or unknowledgeable truck drivers often pull across the tracks and stop at the intersection, waiting there for a green light. While waiting there, the rear portion of a fifty-three foot long trailer overhangs the railroad tracks. If cross traffic prevented an idling tractor-trailer from moving forward in time, an approaching train could easily strike the trailer.

“Required pavement markings and advance warning signage” – On the southbound Rice Ave. approach, the pavement is cracked, rutted and generally worn out. Likewise, the pavement markings appear worn, cracked and faded. On approach to the tracks, there are no road reflectors of any kind, thus making a nighttime approach a disorienting experience for drivers unfamiliar with the intersection. Within a few yards of the tracks, there are two small signs reading, “Do Not Stop on Tracks”. Other than the crossbuck and the faded roadway markings, those two small signs are the only visual warnings for big rig drivers. The overhead crossbuck should include a lighted, flashing sign reading, “Big Rigs Stop Here on Red Signal”.

The "pilot", a steel reinforced blade on this Amtrak cabcar is the only derailment protection for passenger trains carrying hundreds of passengers - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)The cause of the February 2015 Oxnard Metrolink collision is not in dispute. Mr. Jose Sanchez-Ramirez mistook the railroad right-of-way for Fifth St. After making an errant right turn, Sanchez-Ramirez drove his work truck and utility trailer on to the railroad tracks. Eighty feet west of Rice Ave., his rig came to rest. Soon thereafter, Metrolink Train Number 102 struck the disabled truck, derailing all of the cars in the train, injuring thirty-three and ultimately causing the death of Senior Engineer Glenn Steele.

With the prevalence of faded or nonexistent roadway safety markings, it is easy to see how Sanchez-Ramirez made that mistake. Almost one year later, an unnamed agency installed one small reflective pylon near the curb, on either side of the tracks. Although intended to warn drivers not to turn on the tracks, the two pylons now appear to be the entrance to a small roadway, thus creating the opposite of the intended effect. To avoid continued confusion, especially at night, the responsible agency should immediately install multiple reflective pylons and a string of road reflectors spanning the railroad right of way.

Congresswoman Julia Brownley (D-Westlake Village, CA) looks on as Sarah E. Feinberg, Administrator of the Federal Railroad Agency discusses safety at the Fifth St. and Rice Ave. grade crossing in Oxnard, California - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)In December 2015, President Obama signed a $305 billion highway bill, intended to keep our highway infrastructure from deteriorating even further. Within that bill was an allocation of $1.5 million designated for the initial design of a grade separation and highway overpass at Rice Ave. and Fifth St., in Oxnard, California. When no one else could, or would do anything substantial to solve the problems associated with that deadly grade crossing, Rep. Julia Brownley stepped up and secured that funding. In doing so, she created the first step toward ending the serial disaster that is the grade crossing at Fifth & Rice.

On March 29, 2016, politicians, bureaucrats and the press gathered at the Oxnard Transit Center to celebrate the $1.5 million federal grant. As several Amtrak trains whizzed by just a few yards away, representatives from the Federal Railroad Administration, Caltrans, the Ventura County Transportation Commission, the City of Oxnard and Metrolink all spoke about the need for safety improvements at Fifth & Rice. With no half-cent sales tax levy in Ventura County focused on transportation projects, none of the speakers mentioned that it might take ten years to secure funding for the $42 million grade separation and overpass. Still, the conclave and its message amounted to a small step in the right direction.

At Fifth Street and Rice Ave in Oxnard, California a Metrolink representative discusses safety at that deadly grade crossing - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)After the close of the public ceremony in Oxnard, I once again visited the dangerous intersection at Fifth St. and Rice Ave. With news cameras from several Los Angeles TV outlets rolling, a Metrolink official and I watched typical midday traffic at the grade crossing. In less than thirty minutes, a local freight train traveled north and an Amtrak train traveled south along the tracks. In the interval between the two trains, at least one big rig stopped for the southbound signal at Rice Ave. For more than one minute, its trailer blocked the tracks.

Moments later, as the Metrolink representative and I looked on, a late model Camaro approached the tracks southbound on Rice Ave. As the traffic signal changed to amber, the driver sped up to perhaps fifty-five miles per hour. After the Camaro crossed the tracks, it briefly went airborne, and then landed hard in the middle of Fifth St. From there, it continued at high speed. In my mind, I pictured that driver seeing flashing red lights at that grade crossing. Would he have skidded to a stop or tried to drive under the safety gates as they descended? In 2009, motorist Joel Anthony Arias, 20, tried to beat a train to the same crossing. Both he and his passenger died in a high-speed collision with an Amtrak train.

Keith Millhouse, a member of the Metrolink Board, discusses rail safety at the Oxnard Transportation Center in March 2016 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Several days after the ceremony, Julia Brownley continued her efforts to seek interim solutions to the safety problems at Fifth & Rice. In a letter to one of the passengers injured in the 2015 Oxnard Metrolink collision, Brownley’s staff members wrote; “Ms. Brownley has visited the site, and has been trying to get the state to address the marking issue. In fact, she spoke to CPUC President Picker about the need to improve the markings. At Ms. Brownley’s urging, CPUC sent a team to inspect the crossing. Ms. Brownley requested that our District Director accompany them during the inspection. Our District Director pointed out the deficiencies in the markings, and showed them pictures of other crossings that had new, more visible, reflective markings. We also provided those photos to President Picker. The CPUC team is preparing a report based on that inspection, and we have requested a copy.”

Congresswoman Julia Brownley (D-Westlake Village, CA) announces a $1.5 million federal grant to plan the grade separation and overpass at Fifth St. and Rice Ave. in Oxnard, California - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Now, over one year after the death of Senior Engineer Glenn Steele and the injury of dozens more, we begin to see some small steps toward increasing public safety at the deadliest grade crossing in Ventura California. When no one else could or would address rail safety at the street level, Brownley and her staff persisted in their advocacy and actions. On behalf of all who must cross the tracks at Fifth & Rice, I offer special thanks to Congresswoman Julia Brownley and her dedicated staff.



Mismatched Braking Systems on Metrolink Trains Presage Disaster


In 2016, Metrolink added freight locomotives to every train set, causing premature wear on braking systems - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

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 (http://jamesmcgillis.com)In 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 (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Citing 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 (http://jamesmcgillis.com)At 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 (http://jamesmcgillis.com)In 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 (http://jamesmcgillis.com)By 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 (http://jamesmcgillis.com)the 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 (http://jamesmcgillis.com)I 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.