Los Angeles Sets the Track for the Safest, Smartest Train

Cities are supposed to implement positive train control by the end of this year, but many are lagging. Los Angeles, however, got a head start years ago.
by | May 2015
Using a simulator, a trainer demonstrates Metrolink’s positive train control system.
Using a simulator, a trainer demonstrates Metrolink’s positive train control system. (Photos by Emile Wamsteker)

Long after most of its customers have gone home, Metrolink, the Los Angeles area’s commuter rail line, sends one of its passenger trains out into the night on a lonely mission. The train is mostly empty, save for a few sandbags stacked on board to approximate the weight of human cargo. There are no riders.

The train’s 70-mile journey starts at a rail yard near Union Station in downtown L.A. It follows an interstate through Burbank, past a giant movie theater and the Bob Hope Airport. It whizzes by auto salvage yards on its way through San Fernando. Darkness swallows it as it clings to hillsides in the Soledad Canyon through the San Gabriel Mountains. The train climbs to an elevation of more than 3,000 feet before it emerges above a blanket of streetlights and descends into the Mojave Desert outposts of Palmdale and Lancaster.

A computer aboard the locomotive has stored all of the crucial details of the long route. It knows every curve in the track, every uphill and downhill segment, every road crossing, every wayside signal, every split in the tracks. While the train is in motion, it is constantly updating its information through radio signals, cellular communications and Wi-Fi. It calculates its own position using GPS technology. It identifies when crews are working on the tracks and where. It knows whether gates at grade crossings are functioning properly. It can tell whether the signals ahead are showing red, yellow or green, or whether they are working at all. The train keeps track of its own speed, the speed limits along the track and the distance it would need in order to stop. If the engineer does not heed electronic warnings of an upcoming hazard, the train will stop itself.

Metrolink’s empty train to Lancaster is testing one of the most highly anticipated and hugely controversial advances in rail safety in decades, a technology called “positive train control.” The federal government has mandated that every major freight and passenger railroad in the country start using positive train control by the end of this year. Metrolink is already using it on two of its regular passenger lines, has tested it on two more and hopes to implement it systemwide by the close of 2015.

It is very likely, though, that if the Los Angeles area meets the federal deadline as planned, it will be the only region used by both freight and passenger rail to do so. There are many reasons why Metrolink and the L.A. area’s other railroads have advanced so far beyond the rest of the country, but they all come back to a single event: a horrific crash between a Metrolink commuter train and a Union Pacific freight train that killed 25 people in 2008. It was this disaster that prompted the federal mandate in the first place.

Metrolink train 111, made up of a locomotive and three passenger cars, was heading north through the L.A. neighborhood of Chatsworth late on the afternoon of Friday, Sept. 12, 2008. The train’s engineer, Robert Sanchez, had been texting on his phone during the entire route, including a last message sent 22 seconds before the collision that killed him. As the Union Pacific train approached from the opposite direction, Sanchez failed to heed a signal to stop. Instead of braking to let the freight train pass on an adjacent track, train 111 traveled at 43 mph on to the same stretch of single track occupied by the Union Pacific train. The crew of the oncoming freight train, which had just cleared a tunnel and was coming around a bend, hit the emergency brakes but still struck the commuter train at a speed of 41 mph. Sanchez never slowed down.

The force of the collision pushed the Metrolink locomotive 52 feet back into the 85-foot-long passenger car directly behind it. Twenty-two of the 24 passengers who died in the accident were in the first car at the time of impact. Another 135 people were injured.

A collision between a Metrolink commuter train and a freight train in 2008 prompted mandates for rail safety.

It was the most deadly U.S. train accident in 15 years, and it came just three years after another accident on the same line (caused by a suicidal man who parked his SUV on the tracks) killed 11 people. There were two more deaths in a 2002 collision when a freight train went through a stop signal and hit a passenger train. Not surprisingly, following the 2008 Chatsworth accident, the rail line’s safety record came under intense scrutiny.

Metrolink responded by increasing training, installing inward- and outward-facing video cameras in its cabs, and replacing its passenger cars with new vehicles designed to better absorb the impact of a crash without injuring passengers. Officials credited the new cars for protecting passengers when one of its trains hit a pick-up truck on the tracks this February. Twenty-eight passengers were injured and an engineer died in the crash, but the outcome would likely have been worse without the new cars.

The National Transportation Safety Board, the agency that investigates major accidents, had been calling for a federal law to require railroads to update their technology since the 1970s. Positive train control, the agency said, could have prevented both the 2002 and 2008 Metrolink accidents.

There was a push for positive train control at the local level as well. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa appointed a longtime ally, Richard Katz, to the Metrolink board the day after the Chatsworth crash. Within weeks, the mayor and Los Angeles County officials started pressuring Metrolink to install positive train control and other safety measures. A little more than a year later, the Metrolink board replaced its chief executive, who had testified before Congress against a federal mandate to require the safety measure just a year prior to the accident, citing its high costs.

But it was California’s U.S. senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, who forced the issue. They pushed to include a mandate for positive train control in a rail safety bill that was already moving through Congress. A little more than a month after the Chatsworth accident, President George W. Bush signed the law requiring passenger railroads and major freight railroads to install the new technology. The Railroad Safety Enhancement Act of 2008 specified that positive train control systems should “prevent train-to-train collisions, over-speed derailments, incursions into established work zone limits and the movement of a train through a switch left in the wrong position.” But the technology does not prevent accidents at grade crossings, in which trains collide with cars or trucks.

The Metrolink board quickly committed to meeting the federal deadline, and its new CEO, John Fenton, even pushed the railroad to roll out the new system by the end of 2012, although that goal eventually proved to be too ambitious. Union Pacific, BNSF Railway and Amtrak, all of which share track in Metrolink’s 500-mile territory, committed to installing the safety system in the Los Angeles area. Metrolink was also able to secure plenty of outside money to help build its new system. Of the $211 million it obtained, 16 percent came from the federal government, 73 percent from the state of California and 11 percent from local sources.

Even with all the major players committed to making positive train control work, putting it into place would be no easy task. It would require piecing together the business, technical and logistical elements of the system, often from scratch, all while trying to comply with federal rules that in some cases had not even been written yet.

Positive train control is invisible to the average passenger, and it mostly works as a back-up system to existing safety measures. But to function properly, it must be tied in to just about every aspect of a railroad’s operation. It is often described as a system of systems, a way to make sure the dispatchers, repair crews, engineers and the software that supports them are all on the same page.

That is challenging in itself, but it gets even more complicated because the system has to work on several railroads at the same time. Metrolink trains, for example, run not only on tracks owned and operated by Metrolink itself, but on tracks belonging to Union Pacific, BNSF and a transit agency in northern San Diego County. Amtrak runs trains through the territory, and the freight carriers use not only their tracks but also those owned by Metrolink. All of the trains running in the Los Angeles area need real-time information about switches and signals along the track, no matter who owns them, and information from dispatchers from each of the railroads.

One of the biggest problems for the Los Angeles railroads has been trying to find enough bandwidth on the radio spectrum to allow all the different components of the network to talk to each other. Railroads throughout the country have complained about the challenge of licensing sufficient bandwidth to carry information from trackside signals, onboard computers and central dispatching centers. But the problem is especially acute in a sprawling metropolis like Los Angeles because of the sheer volume of signals that have to be relayed and the large geographic area that has to be integrated into the same system.

Metrolink tried to lease radio spectrum on its own, but that sparked a legal fight that prevented the agency from using it. It then leased spectrum from a group run by the nation’s freight railroads, which had obtained it in an effort to prepare for positive train control nationally. But Metrolink and other railroads in the Los Angeles area had to shut down the entire positive train control system for a week so their radio equipment would work better together and, in Metrolink’s case, so the rail line could increase the amount of information it could share using its existing spectrum.

Positive train control has to work on Metrolink, Amtrak and a number of freight trains at the same time.

There have been other logistical challenges. Metrolink has just enough locomotives to service its routes, so it had to lease three locomotives from a Canadian firm while it pulled its own engines out of service for upgrades. Then there was the matter of getting the onboard software right. The original programs treated commuter trains like freight trains, because much of the original development came from the freight railroads. But the long, heavy freight trains require engineers to build speed slowly as they come out of a stop; if they take off too fast, they can snap their trains apart. Engineers on commuter trains, by comparison, floor it out of stations and slam on the brakes as they approach the next stop. Metrolink had to modify the automatic braking software so it didn’t penalize commuter rail engineers by stopping their trains prematurely. Simply keeping all of the different parts of the network on compatible software packages is a full-time job for several Metrolink employees. And everyone has to think through contingency plans in case any part of the system fails: What is the backup plan if a car skids off the road and takes out a signaling station? What if the radio fails on a locomotive?

It would be easy to chalk up all of Metrolink’s progress on positive train control to the public outrage that followed the Chatsworth disaster in 2008. But the agency has continued to prioritize the project long after the original leaders who pushed for it have moved on. Villaraigosa left the L.A. mayor’s office two years ago. Metrolink has had three new chief executives since Chatsworth, and board leadership, which rotates regularly, has changed several times as well. The agency is also confronting several other pressing issues, from declining ridership to accounting irregularities to balky ticket machines.

James Moore, the director of the transportation engineering program at the University of Southern California, has been hired by the federal government to study Metrolink’s rollout of the positive train control system. Moore credits the agency with instilling a stronger culture of safety among its employees. “The initial champions are still in place,” he says. “The true believers, who are very knowledgeable, are still in place. When safety culture works, it’s as much bottom-up as top-down.”

Metrolink carries an average of more than 41,000 passengers throughout the Los Angeles area every weekday.

Keeping the freight railroads invested has been key too. Jerone Hurst, one of Metrolink’s top officials dealing with communications systems for positive train control, says the freight railroads see the Los Angeles area as a “test bed” for how to integrate the new technology in crowded urban environments. “You had a motivated commuter rail to get it done in our territory, which is a fairly complicated territory. So if you got [positive train control] done right here,” Hurst says, “this would be the model for other urban areas around the country.”

Union Pacific and BNSF railroads have worked closely with Metrolink to implement positive train control in the Los Angeles area, but they are also pushing to delay the deadline for rolling it out nationally. At the federal level, the Association of American Railroads, which represents freight carriers, says the 2015 deadline is unrealistic. Freight railroads have already spent $5 billion to install positive train control, but the total cost of the upgrade would top $9 billion, the group says. The American Public Transportation Association, which represents commuter railroads, says the price tag for its members would be $2.75 billion.

Katz, the Villaraigosa appointee who served as Metrolink’s chairman and is now an alternate on the board, says a major reason for the agency’s progress on positive train control was its single-minded concentration on the issue. “We made hard decisions here that safety was foundational, that safety was No. 1,” he says. “We had to delay other capital projects to do it, but we were going to do it.”

Even now, more than six years after the Chatsworth accident, the Metrolink board is still adamant about the need for the new technology. The issue came up again at a recent board meeting, when the members discussed the possibility that Congress might extend the deadline for implementing positive train control past 2015. Board members emphasized that, whatever happens in Washington, they wanted trains entering the Los Angeles area to be up to speed with positive train control by the end of this year. “While we would love, for the good of humanity, that [positive train control] be installed throughout the United States,” said Shawn Nelson, the board’s chair, “we’re a regional operator.  So as long as a train operator is going to come into the greater Los Angeles basin where we operate, that’s where we have our demands.”