Tuesday's deadly collision between a commuter train and a freight train in Orange County, Calif., may be symptomatic of a crowded rail system that still relies largely on human judgment instead of a sophisticated collision-avoidance system.
Just 2 1/2 years ago, a Metrolink train and a Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight collided in Orange County, Los Angeles County's neighbor to the south, injuring 19 people -- an accident whose cause has never been determined by investigators.
The margin for error has narrowed steadily in recent years on the county's busy rail lines.
Metrolink service began there eight years ago and a dozen trains a day pass the site of Tuesday's crash. The passenger trains must compete for space with up to 60 trains a day operated by Burlington Northern, which has increased operations in the area 96 percent since 1988.
The crowding of the rail space will provide the backdrop as National Transportation Safety Board investigators study a variety of possible factors in Tuesday's crash: the performance of the locomotive engineers, the functioning of the signal systems and the operation of the dispatching system that determines which train is supposed to be on which track.
Experts said that a high-tech collision-avoidance system now under development could be very effective in preventing such crashes. But, so far, railroads and federal rail authorities have judged the $3 billion system, based on global positioning technology, too expensive to deploy.
Tuesday's accident took place at a Burlington Northern "control point" east of the Anaheim Canyon station. The control point allows trains heading in opposite directions to avoid each other by switching one of them onto a parallel passing track, said Al Nerkowski, local chairman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers Local 662.
Both trains are supposed to stop before the control point and wait for a Burlington Northern dispatcher to order one of the trains onto the other track.
"There's millions of things that could have caused this to happen," Nerkowski said, "but it looks like one of the trains didn't stop."
One federal official, who asked not to be named, said dispatchers function like referees, deciding which trains have priority on which tracks.
"It does for trains what the air traffic control system does for airplanes," he said. "It's supposed to keep trains from running into each other."
"Overall, rail is very safe," said Tom Rubin, an Oakland, Calif.-based rail consultant. "It's certainly safer than driving on a freeway."
However, Wendell Cox of the Amtrak Reform Council, said that freight and passenger trains sharing tracks causes him concern, despite the statistics.
"We need to take a serious look at separating them as much as possible," said Cox. "Imagine driving down the freeway full-speed and having to constantly pull over because someone is slowing or stopping, or suddenly driving in the opposite direction. That's what it's like for trains in the United States."
Allan Rutter, head of the Federal Railroad Administration, said in a March 27 letter to the National Transportation Safety Board that the cost of the collision-avoidance system now under study "would financially overwhelm the passenger railroads, especially at this time when (Amtrak's) future is unclear."
Transportation Department officials estimate the cost of a system covering all passenger lines and key freight lines throughout the United States at about $3 billion.
Devising a technology to prevent railroad collisions remains a top priority for the safety board, which first recommended it in 1987. Tuesday's fatal collision is likely to result in renewed urgency for such a high-tech solution.
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