(November 21, 1999)
By Bernard J. Wolfson, Chris Reed and Chris Knap
The Orange County Register (KRT)
SANTA ANA, Calif. -- The nation's rails are safer than ever, even as a booming economy and burgeoning imports fill an increasing number of container cars hitched to more and longer trains.
Despite the train collision in Fullerton, Calif., on Thursday -- believed to be caused when a Metrolink engineer ran a red light and crashed into a freight train -- federal regulators and industry insiders say the railroad is still safe.
"It's the safest mode of transportation in the country," said Pamela Barry, spokeswoman for the Federal Railroad Administration in Washington, D.C. "Even though we had an 11.2 percent increase in rail traffic (in the past five years), we had a 33 percent decline in total accidents."
The freight industry has achieved a strong safety record despite operating systems in which key elements are downright antiquated by today's high-tech standards.
In major dispatch centers -- such as the busy San Bernardino facility that keeps tabs on all of Burlington Northern's and Union Pacific's traffic in Southern California -- the computer is king. Dispatchers check an array of video terminals displaying the progress of trains around the Southwest. With a touch of a monitor indicator, they can instantly change speed signals, realign tracks or establish radio contact with individual trains.
"That's the highest level of technology in the railroad," said Kevin Keefe, editor of Trains magazine.
But out on the tracks, among the mix of 30-mph coal haulers, 60-mph general freight and 80-mph passenger trains, the basics aren't much different than at the turn of the century -- the last turn of the century, not the current one.
As the train moves from block to block of track, it completes an electrical circuit that sends a signal giving its whereabouts back to the dispatch center. Unless they hear otherwise by radio from dispatch centers, train engineers rely on track-side signals to determine if they should slow down because of trouble ahead.
"It's fair to say it's old-fashioned," said Keefe.
This mix of old and new science isn't going anywhere soon, but a new era of technology may be on the horizon. More than a dozen demonstration projects have been undertaken around the nation to test advanced "collision-avoidance" systems.
The systems rely on satellite technology to keep tabs on trains and feature computer software that uses sophisticated models to constantly monitor conditions. If necessary, the software can make split-second decisions overruling on-board engineers' mistakes.
Such systems are plenty of costly research away from being ready, said Union Pacific spokesman John Bromley. But, he said, the day isn't far off when a completely automated train equipped with an array of electronic safeguards could make its debut.
Yet even when there is such a train -- with its promise of virtually eliminating the sort of human error believed responsible for Thursday's accident in Fullerton -- Bromley and Keefe wonder if it would ever be used.
Because while having an extraordinarily alert and agile computer operate a train may be far safer than having a flesh-and-blood engineer in charge, they doubt the public would be comfortable with it.
The prospect of thousands of cargo-laden trains with no one aboard crisscrossing the country is just too spooky, Bromley said.
An increase in both freight and passenger train traffic have spurred a railroad renaissance. From 1993 to 1998, the total number of miles logged by train passengers rose 6 percent nationwide. In Southern California, one of the busiest railroad regions in the United States, the number of weekly train commuters is at an all-time high.
"In Southern California, there are more passenger trains running today carrying more passengers than anytime in the history of railroading," said Peter Hidalgo, spokesman for Metrolink. The line running from San Diego to Santa Barbara is the second busiest in the nation, after the New York-Boston corridor, he said.
While passenger miles rose 6 percent in the past five years, the increase in total freight mileage was nearly triple that. The number of trailers and containers hauled by trains has nearly doubled since 1985.
Freight and passenger trains frequently share the tracks -- an issue being examined in the Fullerton investigation, said James A. Southworth of the National Transportation Safety Board, who is heading the probe.
Though Amtrak operates trains on 24,500 miles of track nationwide, it owns only 750 miles, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. The tracks are getting more crowded by the day.
The Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad -- the company involved in Thursday's accident -- runs 1,300 freight trains every day, including 75 on its Los Angeles to Riverside line, which passes through Fullerton.
Along some portions of its busy Chicago to Los Angeles route, the railway runs as many as 120 trains daily. Those trains average a mile in length, compared with about half that 30 years ago, said Burlington Northern spokesman Steve Forsberg.
Union Pacific -- just as big a player on the Southern California freight scene as BNSF -- has also seen tremendous growth out of the Los Angeles Basin, Bromley said.
The reason for this jump in freight-train traffic: the economy. And more than just the strong economy, an explosion of international trade -- especially since the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect in 1994 -- has stimulated strong demand for rail deliveries.
"International trade really favors rail, because you're dealing with having to move things over long distances," said Tom White of the Association of American Railroads. Over the long haul, he said, trains are safer and more efficient than trucks.
No surprise, then, that both Union Pacific and BNSF pass right by the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles -- two of the nation's largest for container cargo.
Shipments through those ports are on the rise.
Traffic through both ports has climbed 150 percent in the past 10 years, buoyed in the past two years by Asian currency fluctuations and a strong U.S. economy that has fueled demand for imports.
Art Wong, a spokesman for the Port of Long Beach, said 50 percent of the cargo coming through the port leaves on rails.
"The stuff going to the other side of the Rockies ends up on trains: Clothing, toys, footwear, consumer electronics -- everything that's in a shopping mall," Wong said.
Cargo arriving from Asia on a Thursday or Friday is sorted at the port, then moved to East Los Angeles or Inland Empire rail yards on short trains. There, the cars are assembled into mile-long trains with as many as 300 containers, stacked bunk-bed style, and sent east.
If they leave Los Angeles on a Monday or Tuesday, they're in the
Midwest by week's end -- and on the East Coast by the following Monday.
"The system is so consistent that retailers have already advertised a week in advance, while the merchandise is still at the port," Wong said.
"It goes onto the shelves as soon as it arrives."
White said customers of freight services are becoming more and more demanding. "If they want it Thursday at 9 a.m., they want it Thursday at 9 a.m.," he said.
Despite the increasing demand for faster service, and the sharp rise in freight-train volume, rail accidents are declining. White said the partial deregulation in 1980 helped boost railroad profits, allowing the rail companies to invest heavily in new equipment, track improvements and signaling systems.
In 1998, the number of accidents per million miles traveled was only about one-third of its 1980 level.
(Register staff writer Bill Rams contributed to this report.)
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