The ticking time bomb on a commuter railroad

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Tuesday, April 6, 2010

I take a friend the other day to watch the afternoon parade of commuter trains leaving Washington, D.C. We’re in Alexandria, Va., as a Manassas-bound Virginia Railway Express train comes in and a crowd pushes its way aboard. I’m at the front of the train, on a little hillside, and can clearly see inside the locomotive cab. There sits a young man with a job I envy him for having. Engineers on this line pull down $100K a year, have their daytimes and weekends free, and always go home at night.
And what is this engineer doing? He’s reading a book! He turns the pages as the train loads and is still reading it as the train leaves and pulls out of sight.
Will people never learn? At 1:04 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 3, 1987, Conrail engineer Ricky Lynn Gates, his mind altered by drugs, ran his set of light engines past a red signal at Gunpowder control point in Maryland and onto another main track. Amtrak’s Colonial immediately thereafter struck the Conrail locomotives at 108 mph. Sixteen people died, and as a result of this outrage, the Federal Railroad Administration began licensing engineers.
On Friday, Sept. 12, 2008, while text-messaging teenage friends, Metrolink engineer Robert Sanchez departed Chatsworth, Calif., passed a red signal, and collided with a Union Pacific freight train. Twenty-five people died, and Congress mandated positive train control on most routes involving passenger trains.

And here I was, not two years after Chatsworth, witnessing another ticking time bomb. You cannot legislate human behavior; I mean, what is Congress or the FRA going to do because engineers are engrossed in whodunits? But may I suggest that Amtrak, which runs this service, have its supervisors spend some time, as I did, casually observing their employees at work at outlying locations every now and then? Even now, after all the tragic lessons of recent decades, some railroaders need reminding of the responsibility they have for the lives of hundreds of others. When the bodies are being collected, it’s too late to say, “I’m sorry.”—Fred W. Frailey

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