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Safety issue put on the table for commuter trains

(The following article by Bradley Weaver was posted on the Press-Enterprise website on March 8. Tim Smith is the BLET Calif. State Legislative Board Chairman.)

GLENDALE, Calif. -- Almost two months after a Metrolink train crash in Glendale killed 11 people, railroad officials are considering replacing the tables blamed for many injuries with softer, more flexible ones that would give on impact.

Metrolink officials said Tuesday they are working with federal authorities to design tables that collapse or have softer edges for the system's 155 passenger cars, many of which travel through Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

The announcement comes on the heels of recent federal research that shows the tables can cause severe injuries.

Activists and experts say the tables aren't the only changes needed to protect passengers. Some are calling for seatbelts, safer rail crossings and satellite-based global positioning systems to prevent collisions.

At least one major rail group wants to outlaw Metrolink's practice of putting a passenger car instead of a locomotive at the front of some trains.

The consideration of safer seats is the latest in a series of moves related to passenger safety.

Last month, Metrolink began banning passengers from sitting in the first 11 seats in cars being pushed by locomotives. Metrolink officials said the decision was a precaution until a federal investigation of the fatal January train derailment in Glendale is complete.

"We're always looking at ways to improve, ways to modify our current system to enhance safety," said Metrolink spokeswoman Denise Tyrrell. "Tables could be part of that solution."

Each Metrolink train car is capable of carrying 160 passengers and holding up to eight tables, which are bolted to the floor and attached to the walls. Metrolink officials said any changes to current tables are unlikely to happen for several months.

The agency also is pushing for its new cars to have upgraded worktables. Securing the money to redesign tables for its current trains could be a problem, Tyrrell said.

"We are not going to start ripping out the old tables tomorrow," she said.

"Even if all the parties involved agree on a specific design, the ability to locate funds necessary to make the changes would be a factor."

Metrolink riders arriving at the Riverside station Tuesday afternoon said they liked the idea of safer furniture.

"After the last accident, I can't help worrying about your own safety on the trains," said 19-year-old Yadir Osornio. "New tables would put a lot of worries to rest."

Others weren't so sure.

"I'm not convinced that it would make much of a difference during a major accident," Riverside's Joanna Donofrio said. "It seems like too much speed is involved."

In January, FRA researchers said two people died and many were injured when they likely collided with the table edges during a Metrolink crash three years ago in Placentia. Metrolink officials said its too early to tell if tables contributed to the 180 injuries and 11 deaths caused by the January's derailment in Glendale.

"Under certain circumstances, the current table design could result in more serious abdominal injuries," said Warren Flatau, spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration. Flatau said the agency is developing new recommendations for commuter train tables, which may be completed within 18 months.

Some people are hoping federal railroad officials re-examine the way some trains are arranged.

Timothy Smith, chairman of California's Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, said his union has long challenged the safety of putting lighter passenger cars at the front of trains.

The arrangement of a southbound train involved in January's Metrolink crash, which had a locomotive pushing passenger cars from the back, may have added to the severity of the accident, Smith said.

"All these safety options might work, but you have to go back to the issue of avoiding the crash in the first place," he said. Federal and local train officials have defended the method of pushing trains with cab cars in the front.

The FRA said there has been extensive research into the use of seatbelts on passenger trains. Although the issue will continue to be studied, Flatau said his agency "has not concluded that using seatbelts would enhance safety under every scenario."

Wednesday, March 9, 2005

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