On June 24, 2016, I drove to the Metrolink Station in Chatsworth, California. My mission was to drop Carrie McCoy off for her Metrolink ride from Chatsworth to Los Angeles Union Station.
Since early 2016, all of the Metrolink trains that I have observed at the Chatsworth Station have been “double-enders”. By that, I mean there is a locomotive at each and of the train. On this occasion, the train arrived in Chatsworth with a locomotive at the “head end” and a Hyundai-Rotem cabcar at the trailing end.
In late 2015, as an interim safety measure, Metrolink instituted a second locomotive on each of its trains. The decision resulted from an equipment failure on a Hyundai-Rotem cabcar. In a February 2015 collision in Oxnard, California, the “pilot”, a debris-clearing blade at the front of a Metrolink cabcar, detached. As the pilot disappeared beneath the cabcar, it contributed to the derailment of the cabcar and several other Metrolink coaches. Because of that collision, thirty passengers were injured and Metrolink Senior Engineer Glenn Steele lost his life.
The locomotives that Metrolink leased to ride ahead of the Hyundai-Rotem cabcars are massive Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) freight locomotives.
Such locomotives normally pull heavy freight trains on long hauls. Before the Metrolink lease, nowhere in the country have such locomotives pushed or pulled passenger trains. Because of their size, weight and other factors, Metrolink has struggled to safely deploy their BNSF locomotives. A recent Los Angeles Times report indicated that many trains were still running without a locomotive at each end.
The original locomotive lease from BNSF was for one year. Even at that, Metrolink now operates them on a Federal Railroad Administration temporary waiver, not a permanent operating permit. By leasing the BNSF locomotives, Metrolink made a de facto admission that heading up a train with a Hyundai Rotem cabcar was inherently unsafe. If so, why is Metrolink still running trains headed up by Hyundai-Rotem cabcars?
While at the Chatsworth Station, I walked the platform from south to north. When viewing railroad tracks up close, I like to observe the condition of the infrastructure. Are any of the railroad ties rotten? Are many of the spikes loose? Are palm trees growing up between the rails? At Chatsworth, I found instances of all these deficiencies. Why does any of this matter?
If the Philips 66 Santa Maria Refinery has its way, several oil trains each day could pass through the Chatsworth Station on their way to Santa Barbara County. From the June 3, 2016 oil train derailment and fire near Mosier, Oregon, we now know that failure of even one bolt or rail anchor can lead to a catastrophe.
As I reached the north end of the platform, I stepped up some wooden stairs to better observe the tracks. As I looked down from there, I could see the milepost marker for that location stenciled on the side of the rail. It read “MP 445.4”, with an arrow pointing down to that exact location. In non-technical language, that means that it is 445.4 miles to the northern terminus of the Coast Line in San Francisco. In addition, that spot is where the wheel truck of an outbound Metrolink locomotive comes to rest at the Chatsworth Station.
As I looked more closely, I observed a broken rail anchor lying by the tracks at that exact location. After the Mosier, Oregon derailment, Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR) admitted that despite repeated visual inspections, specifically looking for deficiencies, inspectors missed badly corroded and rusted bolts. In the case of Chatsworth, the Southern California Regional Rail Authority (SCRRA), better known as Metrolink, owns and operates the double-track through Chatsworth Station.
Allowing rotten railroad ties, loose spikes and small palm trees to grow between the tracks at the Chatsworth Station is ample evidence that SCRRA is not properly inspecting or maintaining its own rail infrastructure. Allowing a broken or detached rail anchor to lie where a 432,000-pound BNSF locomotive comes to rest several times each day is inexcusable. Rather than relying on redundancy to save us all from its next derailment, SCRRA should inspect and repair its infrastructure in Chatsworth and throughout its railroad network.
Author’s Note: On July 8, 2016, just two days after the publication of this article, Metrolink announced the impending replacement of fifty-six failure-prone pilots on their Hyundai-Rotem cabcars. Although the recent lease of BNSF freight locomotives topped $20 million, Metrolink expects to replace the pilot blades for a mere $1.5 million. That would bring the cost of each replacement to $26,785. If the cost to replace the pilots is so low, why did Metrolink not explore that option from the outset?