By Douglas R. Failing, Caltrans, District 7 Director
On Friday, September 12, a tragic collision involving a Metrolink train and a Union Pacific train affected us all at Caltrans deeply. It was a very horrific accident involving a transportation partner. Transportation is so important to our region and our economy; it’s how we earn our living.
A northbound Metrolink Train #111 (from Los Angeles Union Station) collided head-on with southbound Union Pacific train number LOF 65 of the 12th, at 4:23 p.m. in Chatsworth, California. There were three Union Pacific crew members and two Metrolink crew members, with as many as 225 passengers on the Metrolink train.
Certainly, Caltrans responded as we always do in emergencies and disasters. Caltrans was called upon by the incident command center to control traffic caused by many people driving in and out of the area for various reasons. Caltrans closed nearby on- and off-ramps on State Route 118 at De Soto Avenue and Topanga Canyon Boulevard.
I appreciate the tireless work of our Maintenance crews. From me to you and from others heading the incident command center, “Thank you” to all who were at the incident site around the clock, doing their best to control traffic so that the first responders, ambulance crews, the Los Angeles County Fire Department, the Los Angeles Police Department and the California Highway Patrol, could do what they needed to do with the least amount of distraction.
District 7 Operations team responded with traffic management signage, and the Los Angeles Regional Transportation Management Center (LARTMC) activated Changeable Message Signs (CMS) to advise motorists of the closures and alternate routes. Within the first few hours and by the next day following the accident, Caltrans issued an unusually large amount of permits for heavy equipment and large trucks to move on the freeway system for use in the recovery effort.
I want to make sure that everyone from Caltrans who was involved in this effort knows that many people and agencies involved at the incident command center have expressed their thanks to Caltrans crews who were on the scene and for the support we provided in many ways. We, at Caltrans, are trained to be in the support role position. Your work in the field was noticed and appreciated.
For the 25 people who have died in this tragic incident, it is time for us to think of their families. And for those 135 who were severely injured, we wish them all a full and speedy recovery.
In the aftermath of the tragic loss of life in this Metrolink accident, the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) unanimously passed an emergency order on September 18, 2008, to ban the use of cell phones and other personal electronic devices while operating a train. This emergency regulation clearly brings the dangers of cell phone use on the job site into focus. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been tracking cell phone usage by drivers, and in 2007 reported, “… 1,005,000 vehicles on the road at any given daylight moment being driven by someone using a hand-held phone.” This survey also reports “… an estimated 11 percent of vehicles in the typical daylight moment… is using some type of phone, either hand-held or hands-free.”
The convenience offered by technology is difficult to ignore, but the inattention caused by this little distraction can easily result in tragic consequences. I urge all of you to be mindful of the safety of yourselves and those around you when you use cell phones and blackberries, whether you are walking, riding transit, or driving. It is tempting to take care of that one small detail, or make that phone call, read that e-mail or check voicemail. Also, be mindful when working on the road, other drivers are distracted by their hand-held use of cell phones and other activities, which also places you in danger. The lives lost in the Metrolink accident are a grim reminder to us all. Please be careful, be constantly aware of your surroundings, and if you must make a cell phone call on the road, find a safe place to stop and remove yourself from harm’s way. Dial the phone when the vehicle is not in motion. No phone call is worth your life.
I remind you of Caltrans Director’s Policy 29, (issued May 28, 2008), which speaks to the issue of cell phone usage on the job and requires the following from all employees:
1) Recognize the risks of being distracted while working in an active work zone. While in active work zones, personal communication devices are to be kept in off mode and entertainment devices are not to be used.
2) Conduct business telephone calls only after ensuring the safety of the work area, themselves, other workers, and the traveling public.
3) Use personal communication devices for personal calls during breaks or lunch periods from a safe area and do not distract other workers at work.
And the final word about our State budget, which is to say that we do now have a State budget after a record 82-day impasse. Thank you all for your continued diligent work during that time of uncertainty. Though, passed by our Legislature and signed by the Governor, it is far from a perfect budget, but it is a very necessary budget.
For us in the transportation community, we can feel good that the State Transportation Improvement Funds (STIP/Proposition 42) were spared and are available to keep us working and to provide the necessary projects and jobs to help move California’s economy forward. This is due to the recognition of the great work we have accomplished these past few years that helped the Legislature and Governor recognize the value of what Caltrans does.
So, with all the tough choices facing them, they elected to keep funding in transportation. That is a credit to each one of you that are out there doing the best job you can each and every day. It is also a mandate from the people of California that we continue to keep providing that high level of service, to do the job we do as best we can, as cost-effective as we can, to ensure that the trust they have in us is paid back.
Think of us as a private company. Please! Think of us as a private company! The people of the State of California are our shareholders; they own our stock. This year, we need to be focused on and reminded that our job is to make sure that our stockholders profit from our labor. Although this fiscal year’s budget is challenging, we can expect economic trouble to continue for another budget cycle or longer. We will need to continue to show that we can be trusted to do well with the resources we are given and that we can return a profit to the people of California, such that they will want to continue to invest in our company.