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Metrolink record calls safety into question

LOS ANGELES – Southern California’s Metrolink has amassed the most fatalities among commuter railroads of similar size in the United States over the past decade, a statistic boosted in part by three deadly train collisions in the past five years, according to federal reports.

There are many contributing factors to Metrolink’s record, but the agency stands out from its counterparts in the degree to which it must share its tracks with freight trains.

From 1999 through June 30, 47 people have died in incidents involving Metrolink trains, according to Federal Railroad Administration records. That number does not include the 25 people killed in Friday’s collision with a freight train in the Chatsworth section of Los Angeles, the woman who died after her car was struck by a Metrolink train in Corona, 30 miles east, on Friday afternoon and a suicide by a pedestrian earlier this month.

The only commuter rail agency with more deaths than Metrolink is New Jersey Transit, whose trains annually travel four times as many miles and carry five times as many passengers. New Jersey Transit amassed at least 79 deaths through June 30.

“The figure I think is unfortunately misleading,” said Keith Millhouse, the vice-chair of the Metrolink board of directors. “I don’t think you can necessarily say or draw conclusions that these numbers necessarily reflect Metrolink’s safety record.”

He said 11 deaths in one crash were the “act of a convicted murderer” and pointed out that many of the deaths were the result of people and cars trespassing on or crossing the tracks. Federal records show that 20 people, most of them in vehicles, have been killed in accidents at street crossings with Metrolink trains since 1999. That is more than other similar commuter rail agencies, except the Chicago area’s Metra, which had 22 such deaths. Metrolink has 464 grade crossings, a number that experts say is higher than other railroads.

Warren Flatau, a Federal Railroad Administration spokesman, said it’s difficult to compare commuter railroads because of their different sizes, operating environments and the nature of crashes.