Substandard Safety Prevails at the Fifth and Rice Railroad Grade Crossing in Oxnard, California
I have lived in Ventura County, California for almost half my life. I love the place, but I know its history as a formerly remote, rural county whose patron families did not like change. In the 1950s and 1960s, their mantra was, “If we don’t build roads, no one will come”. With or without adequate roads, the people came. In 1970, the county population was 400,000. In 2013, it had more than doubled, to 840,000.
In 2004, Ventura County voters spurned a half-cent sales tax that would have been devoted to transportation projects. In 2008, county officials again ran that idea up the flagpole, only to see it shot down from every direction. Continued attempts to raise sales taxes in Ventura County was like a parody of the famous line in the movie, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. “Roads? We don’t need no stinkin roads!”
In July 2015, the Ventura County Transportation commission announced the results of their most recent poll regarding a new half cent sales tax in Ventura County, which would fund transportation improvements. Although sixty percent of respondents favored the idea, a ballot measure would require a two-thirds positive vote to succeed. If the measure appears on the 2016 ballot, we can expect a groundswell of opposition. Their likely rallying cry will be, “Taxes? We don’t need no stinkin taxes”.
In July 2015, train crash survivor Marc Gerstel and I visited the February 2015 Metrolink Oxnard collision site. First, we paid our respects at the memorial for engineer Glenn Steele, who died from injuries sustained in the collision. Then, Gerstel and I agreed that we would use my characters, Plush Kokopelli and Coney the Traffic Cone to make our visit more meaningful. Almost immediately, Plush Kokopelli jumped up on the Rice Ave. “crossbuck”, which is the generic term for the big overhead railroad warning sign. Aiming his flute down toward ground level, Plush Kokopelli pointed out a serious safety deficiency. If left unattended, the deficiency could have catastrophic consequences for motorists and train passengers at the crossing.
On the cast metal base of the crossbuck, one of four support flanges was split wide open, thus weakening the entire structure. Since the split flange faced Rice Ave., I assumed that a speeding vehicle had hit the metal base quite hard. If another vehicle were to strike the base at that vulnerable spot, the crossbuck tower-sign could collapse onto the roadway and even the railroad tracks.
Meanwhile, Coney had waited patiently while we took pictures of the damaged base of the crossbuck. By then, he could hardly contain himself. While standing by the crossbuck, Coney had made friends with a large Caltrans traffic cone, which was lying on its side, unable to right itself. After Coney got my attention, I tipped the Caltrans Coney up, so that it could stand on its own base. Since I have channeled Kokopelli and Coney for years, I could see that my Coney wanted to help Caltrans Coney once again be a productive member of the safety cone community.
Most news reports about the February 2015 Metrolink collision are incomplete. The driver of the F-450 work truck, Mr. Jose Sanchez-Ramirez was not a “recent transplant from Tucson, Arizona”. In fact, he was making his first-ever trip from Tucson to the Oxnard Plain. There, he was to deliver welding equipment to one of the local farms. The previous day, after driving from Tucson to San Diego, his original rig broke down. After waiting for delivery of a replacement truck, he headed north toward Ventura County. Somewhere along the way, he was in a minor traffic accident, which only delayed him further.
After driving all day and all night without rest, Jose Sanchez-Ramirez arrived before dawn on Rice Ave., heading south toward Fifth St. Having no GPS guidance, Sanchez-Ramirez relied on a printout of an internet map to guide him. There, exhausted and in the dark, he mistook the railroad tracks for Fifth St. and turned too soon. Eighty feet west, he stopped on the tracks, thus setting up the pre-dawn collision with Metrolink Train No. 102.
In July 2015, Marc Gerstel and I stood where Sanchez-Ramirez made his fateful turn. Beyond the crossbuck, but before the railroad tracks, I placed Caltrans Coney in his rightful place. If Caltrans Coney had been there, silently standing guard between the crossbuck and the tracks on that fateful morning, there would have been no collision. The vigilant Caltrans Coney would have warned Jose Sanchez-Ramirez against his errant turn. If that turn had not happened, Glenn Steele would be alive today and Marc Gerstel would still be an adjunct professor of dental technology at LA City College.
I found my first Coney the Traffic Cone almost a decade ago. Since then, I have collected many of the mistreated and abandoned traffic cones that I have found along the highway. Some were in good shape while others were nearly shredded. The good thing about a traffic cone is that if run over by a vehicle, more often than not, it will pop back into shape and keep on coning. If you look along the roadsides of America, eventually you will spot a Coney, standing or lying there with nothing productive to do.
If you find an abandoned Coney along the road, please pick it up. If you are in Ventura County, please carry it to the Fifth and Rice grade crossing. Once there, place it along the side of the road, between the crossbuck and the tracks. Then, drive away smiling, because you may have prevented the next Metrolink collision at Rice Ave. and Fifth St. in Oxnard, California. As Marc Gerstel, Coney, Kokopelli and I drove away from the scene; the battered and beaten Caltrans Coney proudly stood guard at the deadliest railroad crossing in Ventura County.
After visiting the collision site, Marc Gerstel gave me the latest facts regarding that intersection. “According to David Golonski, the chairperson of the LOSSAN Rail Corridor Agency, this is the second busiest rail corridor in the nation. For the past twenty years, the Rice Ave. and 5th Street crossing has earned the label as the ‘deadliest crossing in Ventura County’. With a total of fourteen accidents and four deaths, it is in the ‘top-23 list’ of most dangerous crossings in California. It ranks as the third most deadly in Southern California. The proposed solution by Mr. Leahy, which is to install ‘pavement sensors that would be faster and cheaper’ than a grade separation is like putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound.”
According to the office of Congresswoman Julia Brownley (D - Agoura Hills), from 2006 - 2014, the Federal Highway Administration California Division has received over $42 million in federal money intended specifically for remediation of dangerous rail crossings. According to Malcolm Dougherty, Director of Caltrans, the grade crossing at Rice and Fifth is not high enough on the statewide priority list to receive any of that funding. Despite Dougherty's statement that, "We are committed to expeditiously obligating and utilizing all federal funds for this (safety) effort", to date none of the $42 million has been obligated or spent.
If the previously allocated, yet un-utilized federal funding were to be allocated for improvements at the Fifth and Rice grade crossing, there would be sufficient funds to build and dedicate the proposed "Glenn Steele Memorial Overpass" at the site of his fatal injuries. If not, I expect the sixth extinction to be complete and the next ice age to commence before we see any mitigation of the dangers still evident at Fifth and Rice, in Oxnard, California.
This is Part 2 of a two-part article. To read Part 1, please click HERE.
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Ventura County - Remains in the Steam Era of Transportation Infrastructure and Railroad Safety
In February 2015, the grade crossing at Rice Ave. and Fifth St. (Fifth and Rice) in Oxnard, California was the scene of yet another deadly Metrolink train collision. While reading news reports of the collision, I found myself appalled by the continued carnage at the busiest commercial intersection in Ventura County.
Beginning in April 2015, I set out to investigate the circumstances of the collision between Metrolink Train No. 102 and a Ford F-450 work truck. Since then, I have published my own preliminary findings concerning the deficiencies at the intersection and within the Metrolink trains that traverse the Oxnard Plain.
As of this writing, it has been five months since the Oxnard Metrolink collision. In the interim, politicians and transportation agency chiefs from throughout Southern California have agreed that the intersection represents an ongoing danger to motorists and train passengers alike. Most officials pointed to the 2004 election loss of a Ventura County half-cent transportation sales tax as the root of the problem.
Without matching funds from a county sales tax, neither state nor federal money will soon be forthcoming to fix safety issues at that serial-collision site. Experts and policymakers agree that only a complete grade separation, utilizing a Rice Ave. overpass will eliminate future collisions at the site. With a $35 - $40 million price tag for the grade separation, no one in authority expects any substantial safety improvements at the collision site for at least the next decade.
In early 2015, Metrolink named transportation veteran Art Leahy as its new chief executive. On June 30, 2015, L.A. Times reporter Dan Weikel interviewed Leahy regarding the important issues facing both Leahy and Metrolink. One of those issues was the grade crossing at Fifth and Rice. Weikel asked, “Is anything being done about Rice Avenue near Oxnard, where a Metrolink train collided with a pickup truck and trailer that strayed into the crossing?”
Apparently, neither Weikel nor Leahy understood that a Ford F-450 is not a lightweight pickup truck or that its attached trailer was transporting heavy welding equipment. In fact, an F-450 weighs over seven tons and can tow a trailer weighing over fifteen tons. If the F-450 rig was fully loaded, it could have weighed more than 44,000 pounds. Nor did the truck “stray into the crossing”. Instead, its driver, Jose Sanchez-Ramirez, from Tucson Arizona, had prematurely made a hard right turn onto the tracks. Eighty feet west of the intersection, his truck and trailer had halted on the tracks in a “high-centered” position.
In answering the reporter’s question, Leahy began by reiterating the usual Ventura County “tax and funding” issues. Then, Leahy displayed his ignorance of what had happened in the predawn hours on that fateful February morning. By his answer, it was obvious that Leahy had bought into the assumption that the F-450 rig was a pickup truck that had “strayed into the crossing”. With that in mind, Leahy made his pitch for modest, yet superfluous safety improvements at the deadly crossing.
Leahy stated, “I would like to look into putting sensors in the pavement. It’s cheaper and faster to do than a grade separation”. Had Leahy read the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) preliminary accident report, he would have known that sensors in the pavement would not have detected a truck and trailer stalled eighty feet from the grade crossing. Nothing that Leahy suggested would have helped prevent the February 2015 collision of Train No. 102.
If he wants to know what happened at Fifth and Rice, Leahy should conduct his own site survey. In fact, it might be instructive for Leahy to ride the Metrolink Ventura County line to Ventura one afternoon and then take Train No. 102 back to Los Angeles the next morning. As he approaches Fifth and Rice, I hope he is not seated at a killer worktable in an obsolete bi-level Bombardier coach. If so, in the event of a collision, he would have a high risk of debilitating injuries or even death. Doubting that such a busy person as Leahy would visit a former crash site so far from his home base in Los Angeles, I decided to survey the scene again, nearly six months after the deadly collision.
Soon after I published two articles about Metrolink and rail safety in Ventura County, I met Mr. Marc Gerstel. On that dark February morning, Gerstel told me, he was a passenger on Train No. 102. According to news reports that day, "the train was traveling at 79 mph headed out of the Oxnard Transit Center". While sitting in the second coach, Gerstel heard the brakes engage in full emergency mode. As his laptop computer flew across the worktable at which he sat, he felt the collision, saw a fireball outside the window and then began to “tumble like a tennis shoe in a dryer”. People and objects were flying everywhere inside the obsolete bi-level Bombardier coach in which he rode. After he struck one or more of what Metrolink has admitted for over a decade to be “killer worktables”, Gerstel sustained both a broken neck and shattered lower vertebrae.
In early July, when I asked Marc Gerstel if he would like to visit the scene of his recent, near-death experience, he said that he was ready. Regular readers of this blog know that I have two characters that accompany me on some of my fieldwork. They are Plush Kokopelli and Coney the Traffic Cone. As Coney likes to say, “Coney is my name and safety is my game”. Plush Kokopelli says nothing, as he is mute. Once Gerstel saw my dynamic duo, he was glad to have them along. Perhaps their whimsical presence softened the hard realities that he had so recently experienced during the train collision.
After parking in a safe location, Gerstel and I agreed that we would complete our observations from the relative safety of the public sidewalk that runs alongside Rice Ave. From there, we could observe and photograph much of what truck driver Jose Sanchez-Ramirez might have seen, or not seen in the early morning darkness of February 24, 2015.
Upon arriving at the scene, my first impression was that nothing had changed since my visit three months earlier. To the east, there was a gaping hole where engineer Glenn Steele watched as his cab-control car No. 645 whipped violently around and demolished a cinder block and wrought iron wall. Railroad ties, splintered by the steel wheels of the derailed Train No. 102 still supported the railroad tracks to either side of the crossing. At the crossing, a concrete and steel platform lay between the rails. While standing on its edge, where the platform meets the sidewalk, I could feel a rumble each time a vehicle passed by. Had the impact of steel train wheels loosened that platform from its moorings?
For Marc Gerstel, going back so soon to the scene of the collision was an emotional experience. On a grassy knoll, in the shade of a tree, he found a small memorial to the engineer, Glenn Steele. Atop the memorial was a replica of a U.S. postage stamp, “Honoring Railroad Engineers of America”. In Memoriam. Glenn Steele – Metrolink’s No. 1 Locomotive Engineer, who passed away in the line of duty, March 2015. “The people knew by the whistle’s moan That the man at the throttle was Casey Jones.” – Ballad of Casey Jones. After a moment of silence, Marc Gerstel said to me, “He could have run to safety, but he stayed in the cab, riding the brakes. I believe he saved my life”. As of this writing, interested readers may make a contribution to the family of Glenn Steele at a memorial website in his honor.
Sadly, rail crossing infrastructure deficiencies and an unsafe train configuration took the life of Metrolink engineer Glenn Steele. Since the Metrolink Oxnard collision, no one in any corporation, legislative body or government agency has moved to mitigate the unsafe conditions still present at the Fifth and Rice grade crossing. In fact, since workers removed the wreckage from the tracks, nothing except the addition of a memorial to engineer Glenn Steele has changed at the collision site. To the untutored eye, Fifth and Rice looks like a typical railroad grade crossing in Ventura County. To the cognoscenti, it is a patchwork of neglect, quick fixes and glaring danger. Although the use of bailing wire is not evident at the collision site, there is plenty of exposed electrical tape keeping the warning signals alive.
Each day, officials at the City of Oxnard, Ventura County, Union Pacific Railroad, Amtrak, Metrolink and regional rail authority LOSSAN hold their collective breath, hoping that history will not repeat itself at Fifth and Rice. In their collective inaction, they play a game of Russian roulette with the thousands of vehicle occupants and train passengers that cross there each day. Bureaucratic thinking and institutional inertia rule the day. Like a yachtsman who yells, “Tonnage” as he careens closer to a smaller boat, the big iron of the railroad rules the grade crossing at Fifth and Rice. After dreaming about their own collision with a Ford F-450 at that site, do the politicians, bureaucrats and agency executives awaken to the sound of a train whistle, howling in the night? If not, perhaps they should.
This is Part 1 of a two-part article. To read Part 2, please click HERE.
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railroad safety articles in one place, please visit
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Plush Kokopelli - The Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth
In September 2007, for the first time, Spokesmodel Carrie McCoy and I visited Moab, Utah together. While flying back to Casa Carrie in Simi Valley, California, Carrie stopped at Phoenix International Airport. There, in a cavernous airline terminal she saw a retail cart that was selling Arizona souvenirs. Among the various items there, she found a multicolored beanbag toy small enough to fit into her carry-on luggage.
A week later, when I arrived home, Carrie presented “Plush Kokopelli” to me, as a gift. From that moment on, nothing was the same. Standing only twelve inches tall, in his plush stocking feet, I never expected that little character to change my life, but he has.
Later in our mutual story, Plush Kokopelli would meet Coney the Traffic Cone, Moabbey the Coyote and Silver Girl. Together they would form a band of superheroes that would change history, as we know it. Perhaps they only changed history as I know it, but that is good enough for me. Later, Plush Kokopelli and Coney would found their own credit union, in Moab, Utah
As a character in my online novel, “Walking through Time”, Plush Kokopelli has enjoyed many adventures. First, he met Coney and Moabbey, but soon thereafter, he and his friends welcomed Silver Girl to their troupe. Before they set out on their quest, Plush Kokopelli and the other superheroes first went on vacation to the Cozy Cone Motel in Holbrook, Arizona. Soon, they were to take the High Southwest and even the Low Southwest (Arizona) by storm. Righting wrongs and protecting the desert environment, the superheroes began their long and winding road to recognition and respectability.
Before they knew it, the superheroes were involved in an international art mystery, seeking the identity of the mid-twentieth century artist, C.Proietto. With aplomb, Plush Kokopelli, Silver Girl and Coney solved the art mystery. During a European tour, they discovered that the artist was none other than Costantino Proietto (1910 – 1979). Originally, from Randazzo, Sicily, Tino Proietto became the “Master of Impasto” and later lived as artist in residence in Stuttgart, Germany.
In 2012, then Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona arrested Plush Kokopelli on suspicion of being an illegal alien. Incarcerated in Maricopa County Jail, Sheriff Joe personally dressed Plush Kokopelli in pink jail clothing. With his multicolored coat hidden beneath the pink jail garb, Plush Kokopelli lost all of his magical powers. Soon, it was the shy and retiring Coney the Traffic Cone’s turn to save the day and to save Plush Kokopelli too.
After Coney freed Plush Kokopelli from jail in Phoenix, Arizona, the little flute playing character hopped a jet to Moab, Utah. There, he was seen around town and was photographed on the wing of the jet airplane on which he had arrived. Neither Sheriff Joe nor Governor Jan Brewer had the power to extradite the multidimensional, fugitive plush-toy back to Arizona.
Once free from incarceration, Plush Kokopelli headed directly to Burning Man at Black Rock, in the Nevada desert. There, he communed with a giant Kokopelli, which was soon to burn during the 2012 festival. By then, Plush Kokopelli was gaining traction in various social circles. Just before the company went bankrupt, Hostess Twinkies offered Plush Kokopelli a spokesmodel gig. Soon after making his first TV commercial for Twinkies, Hostess ceased doing business and stiffed him on his royalty check.
Undeterred, Plush Kokopelli went to the Atlantis Casino in Reno, Nevada and won big on the slot machines and at the blackjack tables. Not that he needed the money; but his winnings meant that Plush Kokopelli instantly became the ninth richest plush toy in the world. Still, he knew that there was more to his fifth dimensional life than money alone.
Although he is mute, Plush Kokopelli has an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time. Recently, when the Colorado River ran dry, he was there with the other superheroes to help orchestrate a spectacular, yet environmentally sensitive demise for the coal-fired power plant known as the Navajo Generating Station. In the end, the destruction at Navajo was just part of a movie script. Still, Plush Kokopelli played a pivotal role in getting that script pitched to the executives at Atlantis Pictures in Hollywood, California.
When Atlantis Pictures refused to green light the superheroes’ disaster movie script, Plush Kokopelli and the other superheroes turned their attention to another mystery. This time it was the “Great Burro Crane Mystery”. In 2014, the Moab Burro disappeared from Seven Mile, near Moab, Utah. Fearing that nuclear waste from the Train of Pain had contaminated the Moab Burro, Coney the Traffic Cone and Plush Kokopelli set out to find and save the errant Burro Crane. To read the full story, please go to MoabBurro.com.
Since Plush Kokopelli operates in five dimensions, rather than our mundane three-dimensional time-space reality (3DTSR), it is easy for him to play inter-dimensional tricks on those around him. One day, Plush Kokopelli spontaneously grew to twenty-six inches tall and reproduced his body twenty times. All of this, he did in secret at Denny’s Wigwam & Trading Post in Kanab, Utah. In the spring of 2015, when I visited the trading post, Plush Kokopelli was planning a quantum leap in energy. At the time, he planned to multiply himself like a plague of locust in the Great American Desert.
Luckily, Plush Kokopelli was only able to multiply himself twenty times before I found him at the trading post. I then purchased all twenty 26” RGU Group “Zoona” Plush Kokopelli still in original condition. Showing great attention to detail, Plush Kokopelli had even produced his original descriptive tags, which remain intact. Only these twenty remaining original 26” Plush Kokopelli feature authentic, multicolored (rainbow?) plush coats.
Now, upon his unspoken request, Plush Kokopelli would like the last twenty of his reincarnated selves to go to good homes… and at a good price. Plush Kokopelli is now available at MoabJim.com for only $99.00, plus shipping & handling. But wait, if you buy two 26” original RGU Group Plush Kokopelli, they are only $79.00 each. Just pay separate shipping and handling.
Plush Kokopelli as about the size of a small dog or a two-year-old child. He never barks, bites, cries or wets himself. In fact, he is mute. As such, Plush Kokopelli makes a perfect traveling companion. His beanbag bottom helps him sit up straight on an automobile seat.
If you search long enough, you may find a 12”, 16” or even a tired old 26” RGU Group Plush Kokopelli on eBay or some other auction website. Only when purchasing from MoabJim.com will you receive new, never-been-hugged, 26” Plush Kokopelli bean bag soft toys. With his tie-dyed, multicolored (rainbow?) plush fabric discontinued and out of production, when this final batch of Plush Kokopelli are gone, there will be no more.
Picture yourself meeting Plush Kokopelli at the Visitors Center at Arches National Park. That could be the thrill of a lifetime. Maybe you and Plush Kokopelli could drive along the highways and the byways of the High Southwest. Lean back, slow down and enjoy the scenery while Plush Kokopelli "rides shotgun" in your car or truck. He is a great photographic model and is now famous among the cognoscenti. If you want to commune with among the last of the original Plush Kokopelli, now is the time to act.
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With Its Fleet of Obsolete Bi-Level Bombardier Coaches, Metrolink Continues to Ignore Passenger Safety
On February 24, 2015, Metrolink Train No. 102 collided with and abandoned work truck and trailer at a grade crossing in Oxnard, California. Over the years, there had been multiple train collisions and many fatalities at the Rice Ave. and Fifth Street crossing. News reports at the time indicated that there were fifty people on that train. Of those aboard, twenty-eight sustained injuries, including four transported from the scene in critical condition. One of the walking wounded exited the toppled second coach under his own power, only later to discover that he had a broken neck.
Another critically injured passenger, Mr. Marc Gerstel, was a regular rider on the early Metrolink train from the Oxnard Station to Union Station in Los Angeles. An adjunct professor of dental technology, Gerstel would ride Metrolink and then catch the Red Line to Los Angeles City College. On a normal day, Gerstel could depart Oxnard at 5:39 AM, arriving in Los Angeles at 7:14 AM. Absent any traffic, a similar trip by automobile would take about the same amount of time. If attempted during morning commute time, the automobile trip might take twice as long. Only Metrolink’s speedy train service allowed Gerstel to live in Ventura County and work near Downtown Los Angeles.
In 2005, Metrolink admitted that fixed worktables in its Bombardier bi-level coaches had added to injuries in a Glendale Metrolink collision earlier that year. Although the 2005 Glendale collision resulted in eleven deaths, no one except Metrolink knows how many of those fatalities resulted from human impact with fixed worktables. In 2005, Metrolink also knew that the Bombardier bi-level coaches were prone to decoupling in a collision. In a derailment, the uncoupling of coaches can exacerbate the effects of a collision, allowing coaches to both whip around and to topple over.
In 2008, a Metrolink train collided head-on with a Union Pacific Freight train in Chatsworth, California. With twenty-five deaths, the Chatsworth collision became the deadliest in Metrolink history. Led by a diesel engine, all three of the coaches in that train were of bi-level design, manufactured by Bombardier. The collision was so violent that the Metrolink diesel engine telescoped rearward into the first coach, tearing it open and igniting a fire. At Chatsworth, the third and fourth Bombardier bi-level coaches remained upright and on the rails. Luckily, for the passengers in those two coaches, the collision happened on a curve, thus sending both engines and the first coach to the outside of the curve.
News reports at the time indicated that at least one fatality resulted from human impact with a fixed worktable. In that case, first responders discovered that the worktable nearly severed the victim’s body upon impact. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Final Accident Report stated, "The tabletops are trapezoidal in shape, approximately of uniform size and manufactured of a high-pressure laminate without any form of safety padding". Although damage to the first coach was catastrophic, "the second passenger coach from the locomotive did not sustain severe structural damage". Although the NTSB report does not state a reason for the single fatality experienced in that coach, the "dislodged or separated work-station tables" were the likely cause. If not a human body being thrust against it, what else would dislodge a worktable in an otherwise lightly damaged coach?
On Page 62 of the same Final Accident Report, NTSB sidles up to the extant dangers associated with the worktables installed in all Metrolink Bombardier bi-level coaches. The report states, "As configured, these one-piece tabletops are at abdomen height for a passenger seated at the table, thus placing that person at risk of sustaining serious abdominal injury in the event... of a collision impact. As a result of its investigation of the 2002 collision of a Metrolink commuter train... in Placentia, California, the NTSB determined that two Metrolink passengers had been fatally injured as a result of abdominal injuries resulting from impact with a workstation table". The Final Report indicated that "Existing Metrolink coaches will also be retrofitted with (crash energy management) features". To date, however, Metrolink has not retrofitted the worktables on any of its Bombardier bi-level coaches still in service. In plain English, for at least twelve years prior to the February 24, 2015 Rice Ave. collision, Metrolink knew that its Bombardier bi-level coaches contained killer tables, yet did absolutely nothing to curtail their use or to remove them from service.
With ridership plummeting and an unenviable safety record, Metrolink moved forward to spend a reported $263 million on new Hyundai-Rotem rolling stock. With enhanced Crash Energy Management (CEM) and “frangible worktables”, the Metrolink purchase included fifty-seven new cabcars and sixty bi-level coaches. Later in 2010, Metrolink purchased twenty more Hyundai-Rotem bi-level coaches of similar design. By June 2013, Metrolink claimed to have "replaced almost all of its aging rail cars".
In 2012, Metrolink published its five-year “Metrolink Fleet Plan”. Buried under the section titled “Current Metrolink Inventory”, the document discusses “Metrolink’s established benchmark in safety, upgrades and passenger comfort”. Using language so dense that I had to read it several times, Metrolink indicated that ongoing fleet replacement plans preclude upgrading the older Bombardier bi-level coaches. They cite “Guardian (Hyundai-Rotem) layout and table type for CEM benefits versus retrofitting Sentinel (Bombardier) with energy absorbing tables”. In plain English, that means that Metrolink will continue to utilize obsolete Bombardier bi-level coaches with killer worktables until their eventual replacement with new Hyundai-Rotem coaches. Since there is no currently published plan for Metrolink to purchase additional Hyundai-Rotem "Guardian" coaches, the obsolete Bombardier bi-level coaches will continue to roll for many years to come.
As stated in Metrolink’s own 2012 Metrolink Fleet Plan, coaches that have traveled over one million miles should be retired. Still, as of 2012, Metrolink was operating sixty Bombardier “trailer cars” and twenty-eight “cab cars” which averaged 1.3 million miles of service. At that time, another twenty-three Bombardier cabcars and coaches averaged 950,000 miles. By 2016, almost every Bombardier cab and coach in the Metrolink fleet will be functionally obsolete. When you consider Metrolink’s refusal to retrofit existing Bombardier bi-level coaches with safer worktables, Metrolink’s own “benchmark in safety” sounds more like “gross negligence” to me.
Under normal circumstances, Marc Gerstel rode in the third or fourth coach, facing toward the rear. Typically, the third and fourth coaches in Train No. 102 were of the newer type, manufactured by Hyundai-Rotem. After a collision, the design of the Hyundai-Rotem coupling systems should keep all coaches connected and heading in the same direction of travel. That morning, Gerstel needed to make a quick transfer to the Red Line at Union Station. Therefore, Gerstel rode facing forward on the Metrolink train, sitting at a worktable in the second coach, which was an obsolete Bombardier bi-level model.
Before sunrise on February 24, 2015, Metrolink Train No. 102 traveled across the Oxnard plain. According to the NTSB Preliminary Accident Report, it approached the Rice Ave. grade crossing at fifty-six miles per hour. Upon seeing the work truck and trailer disabled and lodged on the railroad tracks, a student engineer at the controls of the Hyundai-Rotem cabcar engaged the emergency brakes and sounded the horn.
Seated at a worktable on the right-hand side, upper level of the Bombardier bi-level coach, Gerstel heard the brakes engage. Seconds later, Gerstel felt and heard the impact of the cabcar with the work truck. Immediately, his laptop computer flew forward across the worktable. Instinctively, Gerstel reached in vain for his laptop. As his coach passed the collision site in the darkness, Gerstel saw a fireball outside the window. Hearing steel wheels riding across the concrete grade crossing, Gerstel knew that his coach was off the rails.
Although it decelerated rapidly from fifty-six miles per hour to a whipping and rotating halt, the size of the Bombardier bi-level coach created a slow-motion effect. Another passenger rode through the collision while clutching one of the vertical stanchion poles inside Gerstel’s coach. Weeks later, he described to Gerstel what he had observed. He said that all of the passengers appeared to fly vertically out of their seats. In this case, vertical was only in reference to the inside of the coach. In reality, the Bombardier bi-level coach had decoupled at both ends. As the cabcar whipped to the left, the rear end of the coach whipped forward and to the right, while simultaneously toppling on its side.
During his recuperation, Gerstel has pieced together his own personal chain of events. In May 2015, he told me, “As I reached forward to grab my laptop, I was pulled sideways out of my seat, in a backward motion. I went airborne and struck what I assume was the worktable across the aisle. When the train slammed down on its side I sustained serious injuries. I believe that I hit my original worktable and/or another object. My neck was severely fractured and my back vertebrae shattered. At impact, I blacked out... so I cannot attest to how many times I hit any of the worktables. I also had a head injury, so I must have tumbled like tennis shoes in a dryer”.
In the newer Hyundai-Rotem coaches, the edges of the worktables are five or six inches thick. During impact, their design allows them to break away from their moorings, thus cushioning the blow to any human body that may impinge upon them. In the older Bombardier bi-level coaches, the tops of the worktables are of "high pressure laminate" design. Designed in the 1970s, the worktables look like a fortified version of a kitchen table from that era. The worktables feature a single support column that is through-bolted to a plywood sub-floor. The opposite end of each tabletop is firmly attached to the interior wall of the coach. Unintentionally, Bombardier worktables will sacrifice a human body before they will accept the dishevelment of a coach.
Although his mobile telephone was permanently deformed during impact with various immovable objects in the Bombardier bi-level coach, it still functioned after the crash. With its new and interesting shape, one wonders what objects it hit as it cushioned its wearer, Mr. Marc Gerstel. Did his mobile telephone "absorb the bullet" that might otherwise have taken his life? Weeks later, during Gerstel’s long and arduous recovery, his supervisor and mentor at Los Angeles City College visited him in the hospital. After the dismembered train came to a thunderous halt, Gerstel lay crumpled, broken and unconscious. There, in an overturned, obsolete rail car filled with hazardous worktables, he awoke. Regaining consciousness just long enough to voice-text his boss, “Train wreck. Cancel class.” was all that he said.
Having embarked from Oxnard on Metrolink Train No. 102 many times before, Gerstel had observed Senior Engineer, Glenn Steele, but only from afar. With his forty-two years experience and number-one ranking on the Metrolink seniority list, Steele had his pick of any assignment within the Metrolink system. Always up for a challenge, he often chose the Ventura County Line to polish his skills. In deference to the engineer's privacy and the gravity of his task, Gerstel had never approached nor spoken to Steele.
After the accident, paramedics transported both Gerstel and Steele to the intensive care unit at Ventura County Medical Center (VCMC). For the next several days, lying injured and awake in his ICU bed at night, Gerstel often heard medical professionals attending to Steele. More than once, caregivers attending to Steele encouraged him to breathe. Twice during his stay at VCMC, Steele's heart had stopped. Four or five days after the collision, Steele was transferred to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles for specialized care.
A few hours short of one week after the collision, Senior Metrolink Engineer, Mr. Glenn Steele succumbed to his injuries. According to Darren Kettle, executive director of the Ventura County Transportation Commission, instead of running to the back of the train to save himself, Steele stayed in front and apparently laid on the brakes much longer to try to protect the fifty passengers on board. As the Ventura County Star newspaper reported that day, “Four were critically injured, including Steele. Of the other three, only one remained hospitalized Tuesday, in stable condition at Ventura County Medical Center”. With a broken neck and shattered spine, that remaining patient was husband, father, teacher and friend, Mr. Marc Gerstel.
To read all of our Ventura County railroad safety articles in one place, please visit 5thandRice.com.
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