Warning signal

February 04, 2005

LAST WEEK'S tragic rail crash in Southern California raises some troubling safety questions, and operators of commuter rail systems ought to take notice. That includes Maryland's own state-managed MARC commuter rail operation.

The California crash, which killed 11 people and injured 180 others, was caused by one distraught motorist who left his SUV parked on the track.

Collisions between trains and cars don't usually have such catastrophic effects (at least not for the trains). But the Metrolink train that hit the SUV (and subsequently hit and derailed a second train) was vulnerable. Why? The train was being pushed, rather than pulled, by a locomotive. That means a relatively light "cab car" (a kind of reinforced passenger car with remote controls to operate the rear locomotive) was the lead vehicle. A heavy locomotive might have thrown the truck aside. Metrolink's cab car derailed.

Pushing and pulling trains is common practice. Operators like MARC have little choice - they don't have the facilities to uncouple locomotives, turn them around and reattach them. The required investment would be prohibitively expensive, and a cost not necessarily justified by the potential benefit. Passenger rail is already safer than most other forms of ground transportation, including cars, trucks and buses.

But the cab car itself is another story. Unlike a locomotive, it carries passengers. On MARC trains, passengers in the cab car have this to protect them from a head-on crash: the slender bulkheads of the engineer's control booth and the width of the exit stairs. Officials optimistically refer to this 3-foot space as a "crumple zone."

Federal authorities are still investigating the Metrolink accident, and any resulting safety recommendations are likely months away. But at least one suggestion seems worth consideration now. Why not restrict passenger seating on cab cars? Keeping passengers away from the first few seating rows in front of the car is a common practice in England. It expands the crumple zone at minimal cost.

MARC has had its own experience with cab cars. A cab car was in the lead of a MARC train that crashed in Silver Spring on Feb. 16, 1996, killing 11 people, including the engineer and two other crew members. The Amtrak train it struck head-on was not seriously damaged. It had a locomotive in the front.

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