Is There a 'Coffin Car' on Your Train?

ByABC News
December 1, 2005, 6:30 PM

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.