Monday, September 15, 2008

Metrolink spokeswoman resigns -- was she pushed out for telling truth?

It was with great disappointment today that I read (in the LA Times transportation blog) that Metrolink spokeswoman Denise Tyrrell resigned last night after being disavowed by the rail agency's board of directors.

Tyrrell was put on the spot by revealing that Friday's horrible head-on Metrolink/freight train collision that killed 26 people was likely caused by the Metrolink's engineer having not stopped at a red signal. While the reason the Metrolink didn't stop hasn't yet been determined (inattention, faulty signal, medical problem), there has been rampant speculation (including that the engineer may have been texting someone!).

Studying journalism in college, my classmates and I were warned about the moral dilemmas one might face in taking a public relations job. Trained year after year to get the truth out in an as unbiased manner as possible, many journalists who migrated to PR work (common enough as "real" media opportunities continue to dry up) were faced with the problem of putting their employer's best interests over their natural instinct to share information. God knows it was difficult for me to hold my tongue while I worked in law enforcement.

So did Tyrrell do the right thing? Terrell's words, as quoted in the LA Daily News, were:

"We believe it was our engineer who failed to stop at the signal," said Metrolink spokeswoman Denise Tyrrell. "When two trains are in the same place at the same time, somebody's made a terrible mistake."

Obviously, Tyrrell opened Metrolink to a lot of liability when she said an engineer had missed the red signal. But she didn't say why the signal was missed and there would have been hundreds of millions of dollars worth of lawsuits anyway. Metrolink will be sued, Union Pacific will be sued, the state of California will be sued. All of this will -- and would have -- go through whether or not Tyrell made her rather non-committal statement.

I've had an interesting relationship with Metrolink over the years, despite having moved to Northern California 13 years ago. In 1992-93, I used to ride the line the short distance between the Burbank and Glendale stations to see a friend. In 1994, I wrote a post-earthquake story for the Glendale News-Press about how people were taking the train to avoid quake-damaged highways (sadly, that didn't last). And, of course, Metrolink's previous worst "accident" took place in Glendale in 2005 when a suicidal man placed his pickup truck on the tracks -- causing two trains to collide.

Five-car trains going as fast as 60 mph in urban areas is always going to come with some risk. The problem in last week's crash came across mainly because there is only a single track in the area where the collision occurred. Thankfully, that's not a problem here in the Bay Area with Caltrain, which has a minimum of two tracks all the way through (and I ride two days a week). But it certainly makes a case for some sort of automated control of the trains as Caltrain undergoes electrification come 2012 or so.

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