LOS ANGELES (CN) – After a train crash killed 25 people in 2008, the Southern California Regional Rail Authority spent $263 million on newly designed cab cars, and when three cars were derailed in a collision this year, directors discussed it in an illegal meeting behind closed doors, the Los Angeles Times claims in court.
The Times and Californians Aware (CalAware) sued the Rail Authority in Superior Court on Oct. 23, seeking notes, minutes and audiotapes of the Sept. 2 meeting, including a record of each member’s votes, and an injunction against violations of the Brown Act.
The Rail Authority is a joint powers authority that operates Metrolink trains.
“In February 2015, a Metrolink train and a heavy-duty pickup truck and trailer collided near Oxnard. During Metrolink’s subsequent investigation into the crash, it discovered that its new Hyundai Rotem cab cars had a possible design flaw, which could cause derailments during a collision. The new fleet of Hyundai Rotem cab cars were part of a $263 million investment following a 2008 head-on collision in Chatsworth that killed 28 people and injured 135 others,” the complaint states.
In the Chatsworth disaster a Metrolink commuter train ran head-on into a Union Pacific freight train. The National Transportation Safety Board found that the Metrolink train ran a red signal onto a track where the freight train had been given right of way. The NTSB blamed the Metrolink engineer, who it said was sending text messages at the time.
Twenty-eight people were hurt in this year’s Oxnard collision, and one died. In that crash, a man abandoned his Ford F-450 pickup on the tracks after it became stuck there. He fled to save his own life, and was arrested for leaving the scene of an accident. Three train cars were derailed and four people were hospitalized with serious injuries.
That crash was Metrolink’s “fourth serious accident involving a train pushed by a locomotive,” the L.A. Times reported.
After Metrolink investigated the Oxnard crash, the Rail Authority held an “emergency teleconference meeting” in closed session on Sept. 2 to discuss the design flaw with its board of directors, the Times says in the lawsuit. It says the authority gave only six hours notice of the meeting, citing a closed session exemption allowing law enforcement and safety officials to meet and consult on public safety threats to justify the short notice.
Though the Rail Authority claimed no decisions were made in the meeting, the next day Metrolink announced it would “replace the potentially defective cab cars with locomotives leased from the Burlington Santa Fe Railway Co., at a cost of approximately $23.9 million,” according to the complaints.
The Times says the closed session does not qualify for exemption because its purpose was to discuss a design flaw, not a threat to public business or public safety.
The Brown Act allows emergency sessions to be held without 24 hours notice if they are convened to address actual emergencies, such as work stoppages, terrorist acts, or “a crippling disaster,” the complaint states. A potential design defect does not qualify as an emergency, so the closed session was illegal under the Brown Act, the Times says.
A spokeswoman for the Rail Authority told Courthouse News in an email that the authority “is confident that we have acted and continue to act in accordance with the Brown Act.”
The Times and CalAware say they sent the Rail Authority separate demands asking it not to hold any more similar closed sessions, but the authority’s general counsel Don Del Rio responded with a letter rejecting their demands. The plaintiffs urged the Rail Authority to reconsider, but it refused, they say.
“Therefore, without a court order, the board is likely to continue to violate the law. Petitioners and other interested persons, citizens, and taxpayers will be irreparably harmed because they will be denied notice of and the opportunity to observe and participate in the authority’s board meetings,” the complaint states.
The plaintiffs seek a declaration that the authority violated the Brown Act by holding a closed session without the mandatory 24-hours notice to discuss the Hyundai Rotem cab cars.
They also want the authority to “nullify any actions” taken during the meeting; release all documents, minutes and transcripts of the meeting to the public; to record further closed sessions with video and audio; and to stop holding emergency meetings for the cab car incident with less than 24 hours notice.
They are represented by Kelly Aviles of La Verne, in-house counsel Joseph Francke with CalAware and Jeff Glasser with the Times, who did not immediately return requests for comment.
CalAware is a nonprofit devoted to “the promotion and defense of the principles of open government.”
The Rail Authority’s member agencies include the transportation commissions in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties.
Metrolink was the first commuter rail agency to use positive train control (PTC), a GPS-based safety technology that can prevent train collisions, derailments and other accidents. Since Amtrak and Burlington Northern Santa Fe also use the 216-mile publicly owned portion of Metrolink’s 512-mile rail network, the system is interoperable with different agencies, according to Metrolink’s home page.
“PTC monitors and, if necessary, controls train movement in the event of human error. PTC may also bring trains to a safe stop in the event of a natural disaster,” Metrolink says.
The technology communicates with trains’ onboard computers and sends audible alerts to inform crew members of approaching signals or areas where the train must slow down for speed limits, curves and crossings. If engineers do not respond to the alerts, PTC can take over and activate the brake remotely.
Implementation of PTC was completed on the Metrolink system in June this year. It cost about $210.9 million and was fully funded by local, state and federal sources, including 34 grants. The Rail Authority is still working with freight train carriers to install the system in Southern California.
“Safety is our top priority,” a Rail Authority spokeswoman told Courthouse News. “People trust us with their lives and we take that very seriously. Our agency’s commitment to public safety is reflected in all of our operations, from our implementation of PTC to our grade crossing improvements and education programs.”
The Hyundai Rotem cab cars were criticized for coming off the tracks despite being equipped with anti-derailing devices, according to the Times Feb. 24 report on the Oxnard crash.
Opponents of pushed passenger trains claim the practice exposes passengers to increased danger in frontal crashes and is risky in areas with many grade crossings. The Times found that 15 passengers have died since 1992 in three Metrolink pushed train accidents, in Placentia, Burbank and Glendale.
Grade crossings are hazardous. The Metrolink system includes 817 rail crossings, 415 of them at street level. According to federal accident reports, the Rice Avenue crossing, where the Oxnard crash occurred, is the 23rd most dangerous crossing in California. The Times found that in the past 16 years, there have been seven accidents, two injuries and one death in a 7-mile stretch that includes the Rice Avenue crossing.
(Editor’s Note: An early version of this story erroneously reported that 28 people were killed in the Chatsworth collision. This version also clarifies the structure of the Rail Authority, which is made up of member transportation agencies, but does not govern them.)
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