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December 30, 2009 > SoCal train line to get crash-resistant cars

SoCal train line to get crash-resistant cars

By Robert Jablon

LOS ANGELES (AP), Dec 18 - Southern California's Metrolink commuter train system will get a fleet of crash-resistant cars it hopes will save lives and improve an image marred by two accidents that killed 36 people.

State-of-the-art cars with ``crush zones'' to absorb the impact in a crash will begin arriving in January, Metrolink spokesman Francisco Oaxaca said Friday. Metrolink hopes to have 117 cars in service by spring 2011, covering most of its service lines.

The technology, similar to the ``crumple zones'' now used in automobiles, has been used on trains overseas and several transit systems around the country.

The $229 million fleet will be built by Rotem, a division of Hyundai, and the cars will be shipped over from South Korea as they are manufactured, Oaxaca said.

Initially, the cars will be used to sandwich lines of older carriages - one car each in front and back to provide more safety in a head-on or rear-end collision, Oaxaca said. Eventually, they will replace most of the 130 or so older cars now in service, Oaxaca said.

The cars cost about $2 million each, or about 20 percent more than the older models that were purchased years ago, Oaxaca said.

Federal regulators have been looking at the technology for several years. They helped Metrolink draw up specifications for the new passenger cars, said Grady Cothen, the Federal Railroad Administration's deputy associate administrator for safety.

Besides having a front crush zone, the cars will have couplers to spread the impact along the length of the train, Cothen said.

``This is a technology that's been developing over the past 10 to 15 years internationally. The idea is to let the vehicle take the damage rather than the person,'' Cothen said.

Crush-zone technology already is used by several transit systems, but those are mainly light-rail cars in less challenging environments than Metrolink's, Cothen said.

Metrolink's 149 trains carry about 43,000 riders each weekday in five Southern California counties. The tracks are shared with heavy freight trains and are criss-crossed by roads.

Metrolink began considering using the technology after a 2005 crash in suburban Glendale that killed 11 people. Specifications were reworked for passenger cars that already were on order, Oaxaca said.

A second crash last year in the San Fernando Valley killed 25 people and unleashed a second wave of concern about Metrolink's safety procedures.

Metrolink has taken several other safety measures since the Sept. 12, 2008, head-on collision between a commuter train and a freight train in Chatsworth. Investigators concluded that the engineer missed a red light and had been texting shortly before the crash.

Metrolink has doubled up personnel in some locomotives, installed video cameras in cabs and banned cell phone use by engineers. The agency also plans to install a computerized ``positive train control'' system by 2012 that can automatically stop a train in the event of an impending collision.

Cothen said the new cars are rated to survive an impact at nearly twice the speed of the older models, but they aren't crash-proof.

``If you have an event like Chatsworth, with an 80-mph closing speed with a great big freight train, that is not the kind of thing we can create vehicles for,'' he said. ``That's the kind of thing you need to prevent in the first place.''

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