A Sad Day for Los Angeles

I would like to express my deepest sympathy to those who lost loved ones and friends in the Metrolink crash on Friday afternoon, September 12th.

I wish a speedy recovery to those who were injured in the crash.


The Mole reads the papers (and other things) so you don't have to

It is extremely unfortunate that Metrolink management did not follow the NTSB’s (National Transportation Safety Board) advice to install “positive train control systems”(1) which was first articulated over thirty years ago.

During the course of the current Metrolink CEO, Mr. David Solow's tenure, there were three fatal Metrolink crashes. Two of which were thought to be preventable by “positive train control systems”: The 23 April 2003 Placentia crash, which resulted in three deaths; the 12 September 2008 crash in Chatsworth in which 25 died. Some control systems can sense vehicles, such as the SUV which was abandoned in Glendale on the tracks on 26 January 2005. For one such system, See patent information: http://www.wipo.int/pctdb/en/wo.jsp?IA=US2002029335&DISPLAY=CLAIMS ).

It is undetermined whether the “positive train control systems” currently in use in our country could/can do so or not, yet we all understand that a simple radar device could identify an SUV on the tracks as a target which presents danger and begin the application of the train’s breaking mechanism.

Mr. Solow seems to maintain an extremely low profile, almost to the point of invisibility, and throughout this case mostly leaves the talking to spokespersons, one of whom, Denise Tyrrell, who seemed sincere, has now “left” the organization.

Although “positive train control systems” are in use in the United States, Mr. Solow claims, I suggest, somewhat stupidly, that “Cost has not been an issue. We are waiting for technology that works”(3).

I call on Mr. Solow to accept responsibility for his failures of leadership and resign. Two Times’ pieces contained quotes which your Mole reads as indictments of Solow’s management: “Metrolink officials said that they did not have cost estimates for installing controls on their system” (1) and “Friday’s crash boosted Metrolink’s fatality record to one of the worst in the nation, records show”.(2)

The situation, vis-á-vis Metrolink and the railroad freight carriers is that we are using 19th century control systems in the 21st Century. Train operations along with their associated signaling systems trace their history back to the nineteenth century. If we factor out radio and telephonic communications, we use the same basic system that was in use during the 1800s. Time is past due for a change!

A further possible complication is that Metrolink train crews, at least the one involved in the crash, are contractors supplied by Veolia (See: http://www.veoliatransportation.com/).

Contractors are often used when companies want to distance themselves from the wages and working conditions of those who actually perform the work. In short, contracting work to outside suppliers is a way of getting more work performed at a lower cost. The Times covers the issue of long work days for train crews(4). According to the piece, ‘… Solow told a Senate subcommittee that commuter rail had a good safety record and that existing practices provided adequate assurance “that fatigue does not affect safety.” records show’ [‘ quotes denote quote from the Times piece while “ quotes are Solow’s exact statement].

See: http://www.railways.incanada.net/spareboard/Spareboard_Jan2007.pdf
for a discussion of tired train crews and their effect on safety. Many of the accidents caused by tired train crews are freight not, passenger lines. This is especially true when commuter lines do not run late in the evening. However long workweeks without time off contribute to fatigue and it will be one aspect which the NTSB will investigate.

Veolia did what all contractors do, they squeezed their employees for more work at less pay and gave plausible deniability to Metrolink. As far as this Mole is concerned, as the contracting agency Metrolink has a duty [I submit that it is a legal duty] to ensure that their train crews are fit for work in ALL respects. That translates to management oversight, which Solow was unable or unwilling to provide.

This accident is compounded by the fact that the engineer exchanged text messages while on duty(3). At this point in time (2008-09-23), the NTSB has not released any times for these communications which correlate closely with the time of the accident (2008-09-12 16:23). This is just another variation of the lack of management oversight on the part of Metrolink.

Positive train control can be thought of as CAS (Collision Avoidance Systems). CAS are in use by our ATC (Air Traffic Control) system.

Other examples of CAS systems/projects for railroads, especially in Europe, can be found by searching the internet. It is your Mole’s belief that the human element should be the backup for a primary automated system. Even then there are failures.

The best example I can provide is that of the 1972 CFIT (Controlled Flight Into Terrain) of Eastern Airlines flight 401 (See: http://www.airdisaster.com/reports/ntsb/AAR73-14.pdf ). It is easier to read this report than to listen to the CVR (Cockpit Voice Recording) in which one can hear the sound of the Ground Proximity Warning Device, while the crew concentrates on the role a fuse might play in the failure to see a “down and Locked” green light indication for the nose landing gear.

People are not perfect and accidents will happen no matter what.
However, in the case of the Chatsworth accident, even such a simple device as an audible “Red Signal” alert which would broadcast so that engineer and conductor could hear it, could have saved lives last Friday. Such an alert could be triggered when the signal turned red and continue until the signal turned green. The sound would only stop when the train velocity reached zero or was being backed up so as to position it in a safe area. It doesn’t demand much in the way of electronics or even very many dollars. Yet, Mr. Solow and his organization neither heeded the longstanding NTSB recommendation, nor did they consider any alternatives which would improve Metrolink safety during the Solow years (1999-current date).

Finally, the Times seems to want to make Metrolink an object of pity because of its low budget, Byzantine political structure and ‘stepchild’ status(5). Your Mole isn’t buying it, if any pity is to be expended on Metrolink, it should be for its inept management. The Los Angeles Times appears to have lost its investigative journalism mojo and seems satisfied with stenographic journalism, which is quickly apparent in the reporting on the accident. NOT A SINGLE GRAPHIC, showing the terrain, track curvature, distance for staitions, distance to and between the yellow, flashing yellow and red signals appeared anywhere in the Times. NOT EVEN after the NTSB reported that three (3) signals were passed yet only one, the first yellow, was reported!
Local transportation demands the kind of investigative reporting that the Times once gave to its Pulitzer winning reports on King-Drew. After all, Metrolink has probably killed more of its customers than King-Drew!

Improvements in aviation safety have been built upon passenger tomb-stones, the same appears to be true for railroads.

It is past time for David Solow to answer the public’s concerns about his management style: tardiness in showing up at the crash site; “firing” Denise Tyrrell, , or at minimum forcing her resignation; hiding behind spokespersons; Metrolink’s abysmal safety record during his watch; and his failure to even solicit a quote, which is usually a service that is provided gratis by vendors, for a positive train control system and etc. Perhaps he believes that if you have to ask the price you can’t afford it.

Here is a chant, dedicated to David Solow:

Metro-link is un-safe so,
Solow has-to go.

The mayor has just announced that he will recommend two engineers for the Metrolink trains, a cab camera and “positive train control system” for Metrolink, so why do we need Solow if the mayor has taken over his job?

Although the Times article(7) covering this does not specify the mayor, rather it says “… supported by several Los Angeles city and county officials”.

I finally tired of waiting for the Times to print some more detail regarding PTC (Positive Train Control) or task a Chicago Tribune reporter to do so, after all, Chicago is much closer to the PTC action than we are. So I performed the basic research myself. I found that the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.) http://www.ieee.org/portal/site published an excellent summary, dated May 2008(8), of a number of PTC projects, some of which date to 2007.

Listed immediately below is the first one on the list. I suggest that you do your own research if you really want to drill down into the details. There are other vendors, all likely equally fine, so you can check them out too.

• ETMS = Electronic Train Management [System]
– Supplier is Wabtec
[ http://www.wabtec.com/railroad/systems.asp ]
– Railroad is BNSF [Burlington Northern Santa Fe], METRA [Chicago's Commuter Rail line]

[Your Mole’s embellishments above are bracketed by, what else, brackets [] ]
Los Angeles Times, su Topo would appreciate credit for his research and/or inspiration. Apparently you were unable to find anything to print :-).

Back to the LACMTA

The Argonaut describes how, true to form, the LACMTA is considering the addition of another station to the Expo Line extension to Santa Monica(6). I won't go into details because with any luck, proposition R will be defeated in November and the agency will have to be brought back to reality. I will say that the article quoted the estimated ridership as 62,000 passengers per day. Based upon some of the overblown Metro statistics of the past, I would not assign much credibility to that figure.

Even with a respectable ridership, much of the passenger load will consist of bus riders who migrate to the Expo Line. At the same time, those bus lines will likely be kept in service –- and here you can think about the 33/333 which will continue to have ridership. Riders are fluid in their needs for transportation. Today, perhaps X number of Santa Monica residents work in downtown Los Angeles and commute via public transportation. Financial services will consolidate reducing the number of jobs and correspondingly, the number of passengers.

As Generals fight the last war, the pitiful LACMTA planners are busy planning for five years ago passenger demand. The only way that the Expo Line will be anything like successful, is by eliminating bus service on the West side, leaving us in a worse transportation situation than we are right now.

Your Mole has made this suggestion before: ALL buses should have a permanently posted schedule (time table and map) onboard –it should be affixed in such a manner that it cannot be stolen or plastered over with “whoishotsnot” bumper stickers— so that riders can figure out when and where to transfer. Couple this with AVA (Automated Voice Announcements) which, like the much smaller Norwalk Transit, announce transfer points. And Hey, “seamless integrator of technology” how about installing AVA on the 720, 232 and other lines which you missed in the first go-around?
Too, since drivers login into the system with their operator number when they assume a route, that number should be displayed on the scrolling light bar, along with the bus number to make reporting drivers who are rude, inattentive or dangerous easier.

On su Topo’s wish list too, is a head sign which displays the departure time of buses when the driver is on break – this is a use of technology which an “America’s Best” organization would implement. At the LAXCBC (LAX City Bus Center) one can see passengers milling around wondering when a bus will leave and irritating the drivers by asking them.

Shown above and used on most buses as a colour accent, are the on board trash bags. One will rarely see them deployed as there seems to be no “best practice” manner of attaching them anywhere. They can not be suspended from the hooks which hold the empties because the wheel chair ramp would crush them on every cycle. Some few drivers have come up with different attachment methods, usually in the fare box area, but those drivers are truly few.

Pictured above, the bus annunciator which is the rectangular box in the bus shelter, near the center of the photo, just left of the maintenance telephone number, was supposed to tell us when the next bus was expected, is out of service. Smile and say “seamless integration of technology”. This device, located at Wilshire and Fairfax in front of the old May Company store, never really worked very well anyway (See: 2007-08, search [Hold down Ctrl press f] for "delayed". These kinds of expenditures don’t bother the LACMTA,as they just forget about it and spend money on something else that probably won’t work either.

Every failure of the LACMTA, which I have ever described, has an optimal solution, of course, that assertion makes the assumption that the organization is peopled by staff who are on their feet and alert, not slumped over their desks in a perpetual state of brain freeze and lead by an incompetent.

More “TAP” (Transit Access Pass) cards are seen these days. Your Mole is not resistant to this system change but remains skeptical of the ability of the LACMTA to implement it as he indicated by the second and third paragraphs immediately above. In attempting to find out basic information on fares I visited https://www.taptogo.net/ but, found nothing about money.

Why? It is unlikely, the fares will remain the same (vide infra*) as for paper passes but, in typical LACMTA fashion, they neglected to inform us. TAP has the potential of performing passenger counts, that is, if Metro can make it operated any better than: the present frequently out-of-service fare boxes; the destination announcement on door open; the ASA (the spottily installed Automatic Stop Announcement) system; the miniaturized, poorly oriented, frequently hidden (it shares the screen with the often annoying TransitTV) and offering limited usability route map system or for that matter; the weirdly “patched” ASAs which use different voices and odd pronunciations; or any of the other examples of the LACMTA’s “seamless integration of technology” which was one of the reasons that they claim to have been chosen America Best for 2007-2007 –but NOT currently.

For a TAP system overview, please see: http://www.scag.ca.gov/TRANSIT/pdfs/presentations/rttf031506_RTAP.pdf

On page 9 of the pdf (linked above), one can see the full complexity of what is likely to be installed when the system is in full operation. As a systems professional, my first criticism is based upon the fact that this “mission critical system”, i.e., important and extremely sensitive to failure, does not seem to provide for any redundancy (backup of failover) there are two (2) servers, one of them apparently hosted by Cubic Corporation’s division, Cubic Transportation Division, the other by our own LACMTA and “N” more, the “N” is the count of those “muni” systems which will be part of the system. Su Topo can see the future finger pointing situations which are bound to develop. Somehow fares must be share among the transportation providers (that is what the TAP Settlement Data graphic in the leftmost portion of the right 1/3 of the lower 1/3 of page nine means –and you thought things were complex now? TAP Settlement Data means that money must be spread around appropriately, which fact makes the system “mission critical. *This is also the reason why fares must be increased for TAP card purchasers or a debit-card type balance from which providers can draw, must be maintained.

Now, according to Cubic’s web site, they provide service to BART which is encouraging. Not encouraging is the fact that BART after all these years of operation has not implemented a system such as is envisioned by the LACMTA. Your Mole, unfortunately, is betting against the LACMTA based upon their proven ability “to easily grasp defeat out of the jaws of victory”.
Successful information systems are predicated on volumes which will simply not materialize for small systems. Yet the costs accruing to small operators for servers, IT infrastructure, support and etc., are as large as those experienced by larger operators. The LACMTA which seems unable to provide adequate transportation given the present fare structure will absolutely not be able to do it when burdened by additions charges for functionality identified on page 9 (Ibid.). If anyone things that Cubic will provide a server for .005 (a half-cent) per transaction, they are hallucinating.

Here is a list of the anticipated TAP system users: Antelope Valley Transportation Authority; Culver City Municipal Bus Lines; Foothill Transit; Los Angeles Department of Transportation; Los Angeles Co. Metropolitan Transportation Authority; Long Beach Transit; Montebello Bus Lines; Norwalk Transit; Santa Clarita Transit; Torrance Transit; Big Blue Bus; Gardena Municipal Bus Lines; Metrolink; and Access Services Inc.

Then too, systems fail at the interfaces, consider the number of interfaces involved in serving the agencies list immediately above, then look at page 9 and count the number of human and machine interfaces and see that there are loots of places where things can and WILL go wrong. Remember that the LACMTA considered it a “big deal” when they got some fare machines to accept credit cards.

Go to page 13 of the pdf document and you will see the additional complexity introduced by the bank transfers and reporting necessitated by this “wonderful” system. Its’ use has been expanded beyond fare collection and sharing to assume accounts payable functions –a subsystem which usually is a sub-system in a larger financial accounting package.
Here however, Cubic has plunged its’ hand into the larger pie and will, correspondingly reap a larger fee J.
At the risk of being repetitive, la Taupe will say again: “The LACMTA is being ‘managed’ by politicians, not business people”. In this case, TAP will be a losing proposition –you read it here first.

Ear to the Rail

Carl Prine, an investigative reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, briefly discusses “Lax Rail Security a Major Risk”. This is a Council on Foreign Relations podcast, February 12, 2007.

Cosmological corner

"Particle physics is the unbelievable in pursuit of the unimaginable. To pinpoint the smallest fragments of the universe you have to build the biggest machine in the world. To recreate the first millionths of a second of creation you have to focus energy on an awesome scale."
The Guardian [London]

The LHC (Large Hadron Collider) was started, see: http://lhc.web.cern.ch/lhc/ .

But then it was shutdown until the Spring of 2009 due to a hydrogen leak, see: http://news.cnet.com/8301-11386_3-10049188-76.html?tag=newsEditorsPicksArea.0

The Mole Rides Again and goes to a Metro meeting to save you the experience of rubbing shoulders with the attendees

Some odds and ends.

Here is a picture of the best 3rd rail warning I have seen to date http://www.istockphoto.com/file_thumbview_approve/3226065/2/istockphoto_3226065_third_rail_warning.jpg.

Compare it to what can be seen in a Red Line subway station picture included in an earlier posting. ="http://lametromole.blogspot.com/2007_07_01_archive.html">http://lametromole.blogspot.com/2007_07_01_archive.html .

Angie, who is seated directly ahead of me on this bus, and whose name I learn while she converses with her friend, chatters about the most intimate details (and I do mean intimate) of her life. She does so using language which made this paratrooper blush. I try not to listen but the level of her voice makes not listening impossible. “… after he kissed me while his girlfriend looked on --she is real skinny and has big eyes with a mouth something like … you know how most people’s mouths are like this … her’s is like this [your Mole is unable to describe the girlfriend ‘s mouth because Angie’s demonstration was taking place in front of him]. She left him and now he wants to go out with me, he told me I’m so beautiful … “.

The conversation continued with a discussion of Angie’s baptismal status, and an exchange of the young ladies parental belief systems vis-à-vis a Supreme Being.

The driver of another bus is littering, tossing nut or seed shells out of her window. Perhaps leaving a trail in order to be able to retrace her route?

Returning from downtown, I joined an an elderly couple on a bench near 1st and Los Angeles Streets. It was near 3 PM, they asked me about the Line 447 schedule, but I had no answer. The bus “flag”, i.e., bus stop sign with the line number said only, “Express”. They had been waiting since 10 AM, so I called 1-800-COMMUTE for them. After negotiating the telephone tree, an agent told me that the bus made no day time trips into Los Angeles, in effect, it was on a rush hour schedule. I asked why the flag didn't say “Rush Hour”, the agent suggested I talk to Metro Customer Service, I declined her offer. I left the couple facing another hour plus wait for the next 447.

Funis interruptus – Reason to vote NO on Proposition R --the one that wants to give the LACMTA more tax revenue to waste.

Usually, your Mole reports on the LACMTA from a distance –now he knows why.

This time he decided to take them up on their offer to attend an evening meeting to discuss the “Westside Extension” plan. Which offer was conveyed by many brochures placed aboard many buses and probably trains as well.

The attendance was, to my way of thinking, sparse. It likely cost them at least $50 per person, when all costs are considered, for each filled seat at the presentation which your Mole attended.

I would like to tell you that I was favorably impressed with what I saw and heard. Sadly, if I am truthful, that will not be the case.

The meeting had three parts: 1. We could wander around, looking at various charts for half an hour; 2. We were given a forty-five minute presentation by two Metro Staffers (let’s call them Jota and De); Part 3. was a Q and A session, scheduled for forty-five minutes.

After much thought, I have assigned their efforts a letter grade of D-. In part 1., the Charts were sort of “flat”, perhaps uninvolving is a better word. In part 2. of the presentation, which they told us was available at their web site, then, perhaps hoping to improve our search skills, declined to give us an URL. Said presentation involved twenty-two (22) slides (See:
http://www.metro.net/projects_studies/westside/default.htm or
visit http://www.metro.net/ and test your search skills). Please note that this file is dated May 2008, and is not be the one presented in September.

The duration and number of slides meant that only two (2) minutes, on average, could be devoted to each slide. When one consider that most slides had two frames, then the per frame time drops to one (1) minute. Open the PDF presentation and view page 3, bottom frame, where they describe 17 build alternatives and try to imagine a coherent discussion of this page in one minute. Complicate matters by thinking how small the slide will actually appear on the screen.

The announcement of the meeting should have included a link to the presentation so that it could be reviewed beforehand. I criticize the presentation from a technical standpoint because it should have been prepared in PowerPoint. Had it been so constructed, they could have enlarged the diagrams so that the audience could actually see them.

Your Mole sees ineptitude around every corner at the Taj Mahal. And where ineptitude is not an apparent major factor, then it is the willful or inept withholding of information, the availability of which, makes for a better informed and more demanding audience.

Finally, the “Question and Answer” period was mostly taken up by people speaking, some quite far off topic, about things that mattered to them.

What su Topo did learn was that there is an undercurrent of resistance to the “Expo Line” (NOT the main topic of this meeting) which some are terming “environmental racism”.

The Metro group responsible for this “public meeting”, after first ensuring that attendees would be poorly informed, will also submit their findings to the LACMTA Board.

First of all, let me be quite clear on my judgment of this group, and its’ ultimate manager, Roger Snoble --I feel that they have been on a year and a half vacation and now have plans for an additional two year vacation. The reasons?

Although the March 1985 explosion on Fairfax near Wilshire, halted the westward extension of the Purple Line (née Red Line) there is no reason for assuming that the entire value proposition must be restudied! That is, other than to burn through funds on hand or available which could and should be used for construction. So, our beloved LACMTA, rather than continuing the build out according to the original plan –modified or updated as necessary– has decided to jointly win the “Paralysis by Analysis” along with the “1993 Procrastinator of the Year) awards.

They have wasted time and MONEY to arrive at the present point. They are planning another 18 month rest period “working” on EIR/EIS (Environmental Impact Report(s) / (Environmental Impact Statement(s)) and burning more money. See: presentation (Ibid. page ... Whoa! That was documented in the “in-person presentation, BUT NOT the one available at Metro.net J . It’s worse than I thought. Let’s drop their grade to F+.

Not only did the LACMTA excel at wasting time and tax/grant monies which should have been used to press on with they Wilshire Purple Line extension, they also are dumping funds into the only marginally useful money-pit with growing public resistance, the “Expo Line”.

Read background on the Red Line Project at http://www.tpub.com/content/cg1998/rc98064/rc980640025.htm

Fare Box Score Box
Out of Order Fare Boxes 1: Bus # 6355 2008-09-06

(1) Weikel, Dan and Hymon, Steve “Technology exists to keep trains apart” Los Angeles Times 14 Sep 2008:A1

(2) Burmudez, Esmeralda; Linthicum, Kate and Connell, Rich “Metrolink blames engineer” Los Angeles Times 14 Sep 2008:A1

(3) Lopez, Robert J. and Hymon, Steve “Train’s engineer received, sent text messages on duty” Angeles Times 18 Sep 2008:B1

(4) Weikel, Dan, Connell, Rich and Lopez, Robert J. “Engineer’s split shift is probed” Los Angeles Times 18 Sep 2008:A1

(5) Hymon, Steve “Metrolink makes do as ‘stepchild’ agency” Angeles Times 20 Sep 2008:A1

(6) Walker, Gary “Third Santa Monica stop on Exposition Line light rail project under consideration by Metro” The Argonaut 11 Sep 2008:11

(7) Hymon, Steve and Connell, Rich “New train safety improvements urged” Angeles Times 25 Sep 2008:B5
(8) http://ewh.ieee.org/cmte/asmeltc/Archive/Presentations/LTC200803_Hartong_PTC.pdf

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