Feb 7, 2005
On the morning of January 26, a train crash near Los Angeles killed 11 people and seriously injured dozens of other passengers. The accident was caused by a car parked on the rails, left there by a 25-year-old man who was apparently suicidal.
Authorities immediately pointed their fingers at this man, Juan Manuel Alvarez, who was not hurt in the crash himself because he ran away before a train hit his car. Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley said that he was thinking of using special circumstance charges to seek the death penalty against Alvarez.
Tough words by a politician ... again. But these words can't hide the real problem: California's railway system is just plain unsafe.
First, Alvarez shouldn't have been able to drive his car on the tracks – if the railroad didn't intersect with the street at that location. In the last five years alone, 577 collisions have occurred at such railroad crossings in California. Last summer, federal auditors told California to develop plans for eliminating the most dangerous of its 11,000 railroad-street intersections. At the same time, both federal and state governments cut funding for such projects.
Second, the deaths probably would have been avoided if the commuter train that hit Alvarez's car had been pulled by a locomotive instead of being pushed from the rear.
Railroad companies commonly let the locomotives pull the train in one direction and then push it from behind on the return trip. They thus avoid buying more locomotives or building turnarounds. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen had filed several complaints with Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) showing that this practice created a serious safety risk. A 1996 study by the FRA showed that there would be very severe damage and likely deaths in the front passenger car of a pushed train if it crashed going 30 miles per hour or faster. Yet, federal as well as state officials continued to look the other way as the railroad companies simply ignored all these warnings.
It comes as no surprise that most of the deaths and injuries occurred in the front car which bore the most severe impact in the collision.
To the extent that he was able to judge the consequences of his action, Alvarez may be guilty of reckless behavior. But the real responsibility lies with the company officials who, for decades, have been knowingly running a very unsafe system, and with government officials who have let them get away with it.