Deadly train wreck displays vulnerability of rail system
Published: Saturday, January 29, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 28, 2005 at 11:34 p.m.
LOS ANGELES - In the first moments after a commuter train plowed into an SUV parked on the tracks, some feared it was a terrorist act. The truth - that the deadly wreck was caused by one man bent on suicide - was at once reassuring and chilling.
Chilling, because the disaster illustrated just how vulnerable the nation's passenger trains are.
Security and railroad experts worry that the nation's 140,000 miles of track are extremely susceptible to sabotage, and say there is not much that can reasonably be done to protect the rails because the network is so vast and because submerging or enclosing track would be staggeringly expensive.
Track security is "basically superficial," said David Heyman, director of homeland security program at Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington. "Anyone who's determined can get to the tracks."
New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Miami and other major U.S. cities have commuter railroads that accounted for 405 million passenger trips in 2003, according to the American Public Transportation Association. Amtrak accounted for an additional 24.6 million.
The weakest links are the nearly 250,000 junctions where roads cross the tracks, including nearly 8,000 such spots in California. They are unprotected except for easily eluded crossing bars.
"I can think of a lot of different scenarios where they could wreak havoc and create major disasters," said Union Pacific engineer Timothy Smith, state legislative chairman for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. "There's absolutely no doubt about that."
In a recent episode of the hit TV drama "24," in fact, terrorists parked a truck on the tracks to cause a train crash in Santa Clarita.
On Wednesday, authorities in suburban Glendale confronted their own real-life scenario when a man left his Jeep Cherokee on the tracks and jumped out in time to see two commuter trains crash.
Eleven people were killed and nearly 200 injured in the nation's deadliest rail disaster in six years.
Investigators set up a counterterrorism command post to look into the possibility that it was a terrorist act, but they quickly dismissed the notion.
Authorities said the SUV driver, Juan Manuel Alvarez, had reached the tracks through a street-level highway crossing, then drove parallel to the tracks and turned onto them.
While rail security has become a greater concern following last year's deadly bombings in Madrid, the nation's vast stretches of rail defy constant supervision. That was clear in 1995, when saboteurs pulled up the spikes along a stretch of rail in the Arizona desert, sending an Amtrak train into a dry stream bed. One person was killed.
Glendale Mayor Bob Yousefian said he and other Southern California officials have pressed the federal government for years to provide millions to help secure Metrolink's tracks by building tunnels or bridges where rail lines intersect roads.
But building tunnels or bridges costs $9 million to $100 million per crossing, said Warren Flatau, spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration.
Less than half of Metrolink's nearly 800 crossings use tunnels or overpasses, said Metrolink spokesman Francisco Oaxaca. Refitting all crossings would cost billions - a prohibitive amount, he said.
"What are the feasible solutions? There are plenty of pie-in-the-sky solutions," Oaxaca said. "We could create a 100 percent underground railroad, but realistically that's not going to happen."
Wednesday's crash also highlighted the practice of using locomotives at the rear of the train, to push it instead of pull it. To save time, commuter railroads such as Metrolink do not switch engines around when a commuter train reverses direction.
Smith said putting a passenger cab at the front makes a train more likely to derail instead of sweeping obstacles aside. Also, the force of a powerful engine in the back can cause a train to buckle violently in an accident, he said.
Flatau, the Federal Railroad Administration spokesman, said there is no evidence that a locomotive in the rear is more dangerous.
"It's a method that's been in use for many years," Oaxaca said, "both here and in Europe."
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