Is There a 'Coffin Car' on Your Train?

ByABC News

Dec. 1, 2005 -- -- On an early morning this past January, Juan Alvarez parked his SUV on the railroad tracks in Glendale, Calif. -- and caused the worst train crash in the state for 50 years.

Eleven people died when commuter train 100, bound for Los Angeles, struck the vehicle and ultimately collided with two other trains. Alvarez survived and was charged with murder, as well as felony train wrecking and arson. He has pleaded not guilty.

For the Metrolink railroad, there's no question that Alvarez is responsible for the tragedy.

But it may not be that simple. Critics say the reason the Glendale tragedy was so severe is that train 100 -- like many commuter trains across the country -- was being operated without a locomotive up front.

The train was in what's called "push/pull mode." A locomotive pulls the train one way, but in the morning heading toward Los Angeles the whole set is pushed, led by a special passenger car, called a cab car. There's a small booth up front where the engineer controls the train. The concern is that a cab car weighs less than half of a locomotive.

If a locomotive had been leading the train, it would have shoved the SUV off the track, says Tim Smith, the California chairman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Teamsters. Instead, the front car is where eight of the 11 victims died.

Smith says he has been writing letters to authorities for years, warning about a cab car tragedy. "I saw impending doom with cab car operations and that's what happened," he said.

The family of the dead conductor, Tom Ormiston, says Ormiston himself was concerned about the train. "He was constantly telling me that that was the most dangerous car to ride on in the train," said his wife, Ann.

His daughter says he and other train personnel even have a name for it. They called it the "coffin car," said Christie Rodriguez.

However, a spokesman for Metrolink said the case against cab cars is not so simple. Metrolink is still taking a "rigorous scientific look at what is passenger rail safety," said Francisco Oaxaca.

Government studies have supported push/pull operation, and statistically, train travel is 20 times safer than by car; 16 of the nation's push/pull commuter lines have never even suffered a single fatality.

There are times that locomotives derail, causing death, and there are cab car accidents where no one is hurt. However, during 13 years of operation, all the deaths on Metrolink have come from push accidents.

In Placentia, Calif., in 2001, a locomotive that ended up on the wrong track smashed into a train in push mode. Three people died and 141 were injured. Two of the deaths were in the front car.

In 2003, a push train loaded with passengers slammed into a truck at a Burbank street crossing. One person sitting in the front seat died and another was paralyzed. There were a total of 22 injuries on the train.

There have been fatal push accidents in other states as well. In Secaucus, N.J., in 1996, an engineer and a passenger in the cab car were killed.

Just seven days later in Silver Spring, Md., 11 people riding in the front passenger car died.

Since the Glendale accident, Metrolink has made an important change in the cab car: The area where people are most often hurt is now roped off.

Metrolink said it had established the area out of respect for those who died in the Glendale crash. The sign says quiet area -- but critics say the more likely reason is safety.

Oaxaca said Metrolink didn't call it a safe zone "because we can't draw that conclusion. We're not saying that this area is unsafe. We're saying that until the answers are in, until the research that's being done is in, the science has been completed we're not taking any chances."

Critics argue that there are simpler solutions to the problem -- such as purchasing more locomotives, to have one on each end of a train set, or building turnarounds called "wyes" to ensure that there is always a locomotive in front -- but they're ignored because of economics.

But Oaxaca says building a "wye" is not a simple deal. "It would cover an area that would encompass all of Dodger Stadium and most of the surrounding parking lots. It's not an easy solution," he said.

Attorney Ed Pfeister represents survivors of the Glendale crash and others who are suing Metrolink.

He contends that "railroad management knows of the dangers and the risks of the coffin cars, yet they do not tell the public. In fact, they tell the public exactly the opposite."

However, Oaxaca said there's no evidence that there are any more problems with push operations compared to pull operations, and the difference in fatalities is not enough evidence of a trend.

"It's not prudent to draw general conclusions about an operation that runs trains in push mode and in pull mode hundreds of thousands of miles -- millions of miles every year," he said.

Oaxaca was asked, if he was going to be in a train accident, which one would he rather be in -- a train with a locomotive in the front or one with a passenger car in the front?

"I wouldn't think either way, to be honest with you," he said.

But Greg Lintner and other Metrolink passengers who survived the Glendale crash think about the decision every day. For them, push train safety is not an issue for study, it is the reason their ride to work went so horribly wrong.

"It's unbelievable that all of us weren't killed," said Lintner.

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