L.A. Mayor Seeks to Reassure Metrolink Riders

The metro official who announced that an engineer was to blame for the crash has now resigned. She says she was simply too honest to stay in that post. Leave your comments and find out more on the Daydreaming blog.

A smaller number of commuters than usual returned to the Los Angeles commuter rail line Monday. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa rode with commuters in a bid to dispel fears. Twenty-five people were killed and dozens more injured in Friday's crash.

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You're listening to All Things Considered from NPR News. California Senator Barbara Boxer today called for a congressional investigation of last Friday's deadly train crash in southern California. Boxer wants to know if new safety technology might have prevented the accident. 25 people were killed and dozens more injured when a Metrolink commuter train slammed head-on into a freight train.

Today, as federal investigators try to learn more about the commuter train engineer, Metrolink tried to get back to normal. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports.

(Soundbite of bells)

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa returned to the scene of Friday's crash in suburban Chatsworth, boarded a train, and rode to Union Station with commuters.

Mayor ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA (Democrat, Los Angeles): I want to dispel any fears about taking the train. Safety has to be our number one concern.

GRIGSBY BATES: Ridership was definitely lower than normal on the first business morning after the crash. Some people probably appreciated the mayor's gesture, but not everybody needed it. As he paid for a Metrolink ticket from a machine, Jeff Stanza says he'll continue to take the train.

Mr. JEFF STANZA (Los Angeles Resident): I do it to save gas. I get to work. It's a nice bonus that it's good for the environment.

GRIGSBY BATES: Stanza didn't dwell too much on the news about Friday's crash.

Mr. STANZA: I come from New York. So I'm used to a lot of derailments and things of that nature. It's a bit of cause for concern. But, you know, it's just as easy, I'm going to get hit by a car driving, so - or taking the bus.

GRIGSBY BATES: It may be weeks before federal investigators are ready to issue a final report. But they already agree that Friday's crash occurred after the commuter train's engineer ran through a red light. The question is, why?

One theory is that he may have been distracted by a cell phone. Some young train enthusiasts claimed that he sent them a text message about a minute before the collision. The National Transportation Safety Board's Kitty Higgins says her agency wants to look at the engineer's cell phone records and those of the teenagers.

Ms. KITTY HIGGINS (Spokeswoman, National Transportation Safety Board): The job of these engineers is to follow the signals, and that is sort of rule number one in this industry.

GRIGSBY BATES: But Barry Swidler (ph), a transportation safety consultant who worked for the NTSB for several decades, says if the proper technology, such as positive train control, is installed, a valuable safety net backs up the engineer.

Mr. BARRY SWIDLER (Transportation Safety Consultant): Positive train control compensates for human error. In other words, if a engineer goes through a red light, positive train control will automatically apply the brakes and stop the train.

GRIGSBY BATES: That's vitally important in areas where freight and passenger trains share the same tracks. Swidler says various railroad corporations have been experimenting with their own versions of positive train control for several years now, but there's been no impetus to force them to adapt it. He thinks that measure is overdue.

Mr. SWIDLER: We regulate in this country by counting tombstones, and until we have enough people dead, the safety fixes that are well-known are not applied in many instances.

GRIGSBY BATES: Friday's crash, Swidler says, may be the critical mess that will finally force the nation's railroads to make those safety fixes sooner rather than later. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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