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Recently, some National Railroad Construction & Maintenance Association (NRC) contractors have been involved in the investigation into the tragic train collision between a Metrolink commuter rail train and a Union Pacific freight train in Chatsworth, Calif. The NRC would like to express some thoughts on the experience, which may benefit its members if, Lord forbid, they are ever again called on to respond to such an incident.
I know that, at times, we can all be quite critical of our government agencies for their bureaucratic decision making and responses. However, in this situation, the lead federal agency was the National Transportation Safety Board, and the NTSB performed remarkably well.
In a chaotic situation filled with injured people, their families, mangled equipment and dozens of emergency vehicles, the NTSB response team stepped in and took charge. They immediately created a team-based environment and established the rule that this part of the investigation was to be solely a fact-finding mission, and that no conclusions would be reached at this step — those decisions would come later. This set-up allowed everyone to work together closely and productively to gather information as accurately as possible.
Under the leadership of NTSB Investigator-In-Charge Wayne Workman, the protocols and processes of the fact-finding mission were explained clearly to the full group, which helped everyone relax and focus — it was much needed as we sat in the meeting hall with obvious looks of concern and worry. The NTSB introduced the coordinator of each committee that would direct the investigation and work with Mr. Workman throughout the process.
Because NTSB resources are limited and other groups can generally provide crucial expertise, the NTSB relies on a “party system” in which all parties that have relevant knowledge and expertise are essentially made part of the investigation team. In this case, both the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) were given party status and provided technical assistance to the safety board.
Also, all independent companies performing relevant services for
Metrolink were included in this process. I can report that all participants were efficient, dedicated, cooperative, well-prepared and experienced professionals. The NTSB created a functioning team environment, and this produced quick and useful results.
Overall, I must say that our experience with the NTSB process was extremely positive. NTSB Board Member Kitty Higgins and Chairman Mark Rosenker, who have been serving as principal spokespersons and lead board members for the NTSB during the investigation, can be very proud of their team.
Also, I believe that Metrolink staff, Union Pacific personnel and the relevant contractors also worked well together, interacting at both the highest executive levels and right there in Chatsworth on the ground. We focused on retrieving the facts and we got our job done.
This was a terrible tragedy and we must do all we can to make sure it never happens again. A thorough NTSB investigation is a key part of that process. Also, other government agencies have been quick to respond — the California PUC issued an order less than a week after the crash barring train operators from using cell phones except in an emergency, and the FRA later issued a ban on the use of all personal electronic devices in locomotive cabs.
In addition, President Bush on Oct. 16 signed into law a comprehensive rail safety bill which, among many other items, mandates positive train control on all passenger rail lines and also Class I mainlines that transport toxic-by-inhalation hazardous materials.
In the response to this terrible tragedy, I have been newly reassured that we work in an industry full of competent and responsible professionals.
Even as others were criticizing our industry, I was witnessing personnel from private railroads, contractors, government regulators and investigative agencies working together quickly and accurately to get the crucial facts that were needed to make necessary improvements. I believe that our industry is in great hands.
Manny Ramirez is chairman of the National Railroad Construction & Maintenance Association.