Metrolink and BNSF trains collided at about 8:08 A.M. on Tuesday morning, April 23, 2002. I was about 200 feet from the point of impact when the trains hit and was the first person at the scene with a camera.
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I was driving to work along the route I normally take. I leave my house about 7:50 A.M., drop my younger daughter off at her high school, then drive north on Imperial Highway to Orangethorpe Avenue. I cross the tracks just before Orangethorpe. I then travel west on Orangethorpe Avenue parallel to the tracks for several miles.
As I was approaching Lakeview Ave. in Placentia, the green traffic light turned yellow as I crossed through the intersection of Orangethorpe Avenue and Lakeview Avenue. Simultaneous with the light turning yellow the railroad crossing bells began to ring and the gates came down. A westbound Metrolink train passed my car on the tracks to my left. No sooner had the bells stop ringing that I heard them start ringing again. I figured that could only mean there was another train approaching from the other direction, heading west. I looked down the tracks and saw the 3 headlights of a BNSF freight engine heading towards me. It was still quite a ways down the track.
I noticed a white car heading south on Richfield that was stopped at the railroad crossing gates. My impression was that the car backed up a little bit, as though it had gone a little too far into the crossing and wanted to back off the tracks. But that could have been an illusion since I was in my car and my car was moving.
The Metrolink train was traveling in "PUSH" mode with the locomotive at the rear of the train and the cab control car at the head of the train. Thus the engineer was controlling the train from the cab control car as the Metrolink train headed west on the tracks parallel to Orangethorpe Avenue in Placentia.
Since the bells were ringing, the gates were down and the light was red at the intersection of Richfield Road and Orangethorpe Avenue, I had to slow down as I approached the intersection. The Metrolink train appeared to be totally stopped near the Richfield Road crossing near the intersection of Richfield and Orangethorpe. I honestly don't know if the Metrolink train was stopped before, right at, or after the crossing, but I suspect that the cab control end of the Metrolink car was already through the intersection.
At that point I was a bit curious about which track the Metrolink train was on. I was pretty sure that it was about to switch onto the southbound tracks to go to the Anaheim Canyon Station and then down to Orange, Santa Ana and Irvine. Usually the Metrolink trains just zip through that switch and zip south around that curve. But this one slowed down to a stop. The BNSF train appeared to be moving relatively slow, maybe between 10 and 20 MPH. I thought it was traveling slow just as a safety precaution for passing the Metrolink train near the switch, but now realize it must have dumped the air and been in full braking mode, though I did not hear any sound from the brakes or locked wheels on the rails. I just assumed that the Metrolink train was on the north track and was stopped to allow the BNSF freight train to pass it on the south track before the Metrolink train would then go through the switch and head south, away from the tracks parallel to Orangethorpe.
Instead, what I saw was surreal! Instead of passing behind the Metrolink train, the BNSF locomotive smashed squarely into the Metrolink train raising the entire front car off the tracks and pushing the whole Metrolink train backwards a few feet. From my angle, the crash did not look much different than the collision of two model trains except for the grand scale of the incident and the thundering noise of the crash!
I was in the center lane heading west on Orangethorpe directly between the collision and a small shopping center at the corner of Orangethorpe and Richfield. I immediately pulled into the right lane, took a right turn heading north onto Richfield and then took a right into the parking lot of the shopping center. I parked in the first space I could find and ran to the trunk of my car.
Usually I carry a small digital camera in my jacket pocket that is only capable of about a dozen photos. Today, however, I had already loaded up my truck with almost everything I would need to start my rail journey to the Amtrak Historical Society (www.AmtrakHistoricalSociety.com) tomorrow. Thus, I had my most sophisticated digital camera in the trunk with a 10X Zoom Lens. Unfortunately, I the only blank media that I had was the one empty diskette that was already in the camera! From now on, I'm always going to keep a camera with me with plenty of charged up batteries and lots of empty media!
The first thing I did after grabbing my camera was to run across the street and get as many photos of the aftermath of the collision as I could. People were just starting to come out of the train. Many other cars stopped along Orangethorpe and people were getting out to offer aid to the passengers that were getting out of the Metrolink train. Passengers had all degrees of injuries. Most of the ones I saw looked like they had cuts and bruises. Some passengers were laying on the ground outside the train with other passengers and drivers helping them. No emergency vehicles had arrived yet, but I could hear the sound of sirens on the way.
I picked up my cell phone and called Ray Burns at the TrainWeb office and asked him to get the other cameras, blank media, and to get over hear as fast as he could. Fortunately, TrainWeb's sister company, MIDCOM Corporation (www.midcom.com) was just a few blocks down the road at the corner of Richfield Road and La Palma Avenue. I called that office and asked someone there to bring me some blank diskettes, but I warned them to come up Lakeview rather than Richmond since Richmond was blocked by the collision. They had a difficult time reaching me as the police had started to block off roads for many blocks in every direction. Even though I tried to give them suggestions of how to navigate around the areas that were blocked off, the police had cordened off too much for then to get anywhere near the location of the collision. They realized they would have to park somewhere and walk in to get to me. I had already run out of blank media and decided to walk in their direction to meet them halfway. But, by that time, Ray Burns from the TrainWeb office had already arrived at the scene with the other cameras and more media. Ray took over from where I left off and continued to take photos of the aftermath. Ray was even able to get around to the other side of the train to get photos from the south side.
I met the people from Midcom that brought the additional blank media. Since Ray was on the scene and continuing to take photos, my priority was to get back to the TrainWeb office to post what photos I had already taken and this story. I took a few more photos from across the street and headed back to the TrainWeb office. When I left, there was a massive number of ambulances, fire trucks, police cars and other emergency vehicles at the scene. The first installment of the photos and story was posted to TrainWeb about 9:15 A.M. Ray returned to the office a short while later with the rest of the photos which are also linked from this page.
I am still shocked by the coincidence that I was right next to these trains when they collided. If I had left my house a few minutes later, I would have arrived a few minutes after the crash. If I had left my house a few minutes earlier, I would have been several hundred feet beyond the point of collision and probably not have realized that a crash occured until hearing about it later on my car radio. I take this route in the morning because Route 91 is crowded with traffic during the rush hour. Whenever I travel between my house and the office during other times of the day, I usually take the 91 Freeway. There are a couple of other back routes that I could drive to work, but I usually take Orangethorpe exactly because it is parallel to the tracks and I occassionally see some unusual equipment on the tracks as I drive to work. But, in the six years that I have been driving the route, I have never seen anything like this happen before! I am still very surprised that this accident happened right beside my car rather than a few thousand feet further up or further back on the tracks.
We heard that there was a major disaster practice exercise planned for today so that a number of north Orange County emergency response units could practice working together to handle a major disaster. They had just come together when this emergency was called in. They got a chance to put their plans into real action instead of just practicing. Once the call came in, all the units left the practice area and headed over to the scene of this accident.
It will be a while before the cause of this collision is known, but it is likely to be one of three things: (1) an electrical or mechanical problem with the signaling equipment, (2) an error in dispatching, or (3) a mistake on the part of one locomotive engineer or the other.
Questions and suggestions will be brought forth as they alway are after every accident. Some that may be discussed are listed below:
There is always a question about passenger trains operating in "PUSH" mode. This is where the locomotive is at the back of the train "pushing" the passenger cars. The engineer operates the train from a control booth inside the passenger car right at the end of the train that is closest to the direction of travel. From the outside, such a train appears to be traveling backwards. The locomotive is at the end of the train facing away from the direction of travel while what appears to be the tail end of the train is at the front of the train. When the train travels in this "PUSH" mode, the engineer and passengers in that lead car are much less protected from collisions with cars, trucks and other trains. In the "PUSH" mode of travel, the lead passenger car will absorb the full impact of the collision. In contrast, when the train travels with the locomotive in the lead, the heavy locomotive absorbs the brunt of the collision forces. A question has also been raised that automobile drivers at a grade crossing may sometimes have the illusion that the train is traveling away from them rather than towards them since they see the tail end of the train down the tracks. At a crossing without gates, it could be too late by the time the driver realizes the train is traveling towards them rather than away from them. Is it possible that the BNSF engineer thought this Metrolink train was moving away from his train, even though it would still be considered too close for safety even if the Metrolink train was traveling in the same direction as the BNSF freight train?
Would it have been possible for the engineer of the Metrolink train to reverse direction and back away before the train was hit by the BNSF freight train? From where I was located, I could not tell that the BNSF freight train was on the same track before it hit the Metrolink train, but how long before the collision did the Metrolink engineer know it was on the same track? I could see the BNSF freight train approaching for many seconds, but less than a minute, before the collision. If the Metrolink engineer saw the BNSF train was approaching on the same track from that distance, would it have been possible to back the train up soon enough to avoid or minimize the collision? I don't know how much is involved in reversing the direction of a Metrolink train, but I do know that Metrolink trains can accelerate rather quickly due to their light weight. They can accelerate quite a bit faster than Amtrak trains. It seemed to me there was enough time to back away from the approaching BNSF freight train, but I don't know how much time is involved for the engineer to place the train to run in the other direction.
Would there have been any advantage to have a P.A. microphone in the Control Cab so that the engineer could warn everyone to move to the back of the train or hit the floor? I know the Conductor has a P.A. microphone, but I don't think there is one in the control cab or the locomotive. Would this be worth considering, or would it create more panic and injuries?
Another topic that often comes up is whether passenger trains should be operating on the same tracks as freight trains. Much of the country is single track. That means that both passenger and freight trains operate over the same single track in many places, even though they are heading in opposite directions. They are able to do this because there are sidings in several locations along the route where one train can move into the siding to let the other train pass. That was not a factor in this accident as there is double track for many miles parallel to Orangethorpe Avenue. However, even where there is double track, there is little concept of being on the "right" side of the road. Dispatchers control which trains will travel when and in which direction on which track. A train can run in any direction on any track at any time. When there is double track, Metrolink trains usually run on the "right" hand track because there are usually passenger platforms on each side of the double tracks at stations. Passengers wait on the platform on one side of the tracks or the other depending which way they wish to travel. Thus, it is important that Metrolink arrive into a station on the proper platform. Freight trains, on the other hand, go through those stations in either direction on either track.
Safety could be enhanced by having double track everywhere and by having all trains travel in one direction on one track and in the other direction on the other track except for passing or other special moves. Safety could also be enhanced by having one set of tracks just for passenger trains and another set of tracks just for freight trains. The implementation of either of these ideas would require massive investment into the rail infrastructure of this nation comparable to the committment that was made in the 1950's and 1960's to the interstate highway system.
It is now 5:15 P.M. in California, a little more than 8 hours since the accident. There have been no east or west bound trains through the Fullerton Station today. Both Amtrak and Metrolink traffic running north and south through Fullerton has been on a normal schedule. The north/south line between Los Angeles and San Diego was not affected by the train collision. Only the east/west traffic between Fullerton and Riverside and the north/south traffic between Irvine and Riverside is affected. Those tracks will remain blocked until the FRA completes their investigation and the tracks are cleared. I don't know what they plan to do with the eastbound Amtrak Southwest Chief, Train #4. It is possible that they will bus the passengers boarding in Fullerton up to Los Angeles and then have the Southwest Chief head out of Los Angeles on the Union Pacific tracks out to Riverside and San Bernardino.
At 6:33 P.M., a switch engine pulled the entire BNSF freight train through the Fullerton Santa Fe Depot backwards heading west back towards Los Angeles. We were able to clearly see the front of the lead locomotive and there didn't appear to be a lot of damage to that BNSF freight locomotive.
There probably won't be too much more posted to this page until later in the week as the entire TrainWeb staff is boarding the northbound Amtrak Coast Starlight tomorrow morning for our journey to Portland, Oregon to attend the annual conference of the Amtrak Historical Society. Are we concerned about the safety of traveling by rail after this incident? Not really. To read more about our views of rail safety, click here.
Special Note About The Exact Time Of The Collision: Despite reports from other news outlets that state that the collision took place at 8:10, 8:16 or 8:23 A.M., I have to stand by my claim that the collision had to have happened at 8:08 A.M. or 8:09 A.M. at the very latest on Tuesday morning, April 23, 2002. I took the very first photo at 8:10 A.M. My camera records the date and time of each photo with the digital file. I know the time in my camera is accurate as I checked it against several accurate sources including time from the telephone company, Caller-ID, Nextel and the internet source for time that I use to calibrate my computer. All of these time sources were within 5 seconds of each other. Thus, I have to assume that the time that I took the first photo at 8:10 A.M. is accurate, and it took me at least one to two minutes from the time of the collision to park my car and run over to the scene of the collision.
--- Steve Grande, TrainWeb.com