Metrolink introduces earthquake system that stops trains

If you use Metrolink to get around Southern California, your travel may have become a little safer during an earthquake.

The transport rail system announced this week that it is equipping some of its trains with a new earthquake warning system that can automatically slow or stop travel during an earthquake.

The first trains to be equipped with the new technology will operate on Metrolink’s 91/Perris Valley line between Riverside and Perris. That route was chosen because of its relatively low ridership as well as its proximity to several major fault lines, officials said.

Metrolink plans to roll out the system on all trains along its 538-mile track system, which spans six boroughs.

“It’s an additional item in their toolbox that helps Metrolink protect their passengers and train crew,” said Robert-Michael de Groot, a spokesman for the US Geological Survey’s ShakeAlert system.

An earlier system, implemented in September, sent notifications based on ShakeAlert data to Metrolink engineers operating a train during an earthquake.

Under the new system, if an earthquake is expected to hit strong enough, automated technology will step in and slow the train or bring it to a complete stop.

Prior to last year, Metrolink relied on a phone game in which dispatchers received an alert about the magnitude and location of a quake and then manually routed it to training engineers, said Luis Carrasquero, Metrolink’s interim deputy chief operating officer.

This system was deployed after the 7.1 magnitude Ridgecrest quake that struck Southern California over the weekend of July 4, 2019. metro link turn off his service that day when it inspected the line for damage.

“In earthquake warnings, time is the basic currency,” de Groot said. “Machines can act much faster than humans.”

Automated braking systems are nothing new to Metrolink. They were added to the trains after a 2008 collision at Chatsworth that killed 25 people when the engineer on a commuter train became distracted and ran head-on into a Union Pacific freight.

The new system combines automated braking with ShakeAlert warnings.

And a machine only takes control when the shaking is strong enough.

Using what’s called a modified Mercalli intensity scale, the system sends alerts to train engineers if the shaking during a tremor is faint or light, similar to that of a passing truck and observable by someone on the train, Carrasquero said.

The system automatically reduces the speed of the train if it shakes at night or if windows and doors start to rattle.

If the shaking is strong enough to shatter windows, throw dishes out of cupboards, and topple unstable objects, the system will bring the train to a halt.

The USGS will also send Metrolink a report of which parts of the railroad, bridge, overpass or tunnel may be damaged so crews can inspect those areas before proceeding, Carrasquero said. The automated system avoids stopping a train under any of these vulnerable structures.

De Groot said Metrolink’s new system also has implications for a region’s resilience and recovery after a major earthquake.

“You need trains and highways to get people and first responders where they need to go,” de Groot said. “And one of the most important routes to recovery is to keep your transport routes open so you can get supplies to people.”

After the 1994 Northridge earthquake damaged major highways, including 10, 5, and Highway 14, transit officials added more trains and buses, including Metrolink routes to and from Santa Clarita, to alleviate transportation needs.

Although the earthquake warning system will eventually find its way onto all of Metrolink’s railroads, its trains also run on tracks owned by other companies. Metrolink owns about 60% of its rail routes, while the remaining 40% is owned by Union Pacific, BNSF Railway, and the North County Transit District.

If a Metrolink train is running on another company’s tracks during an earthquake, the system will send alerts and notifications to train engineers, but will not slow or stop the train.

Since the first warning system was added to Perris Valley trains last year, there hasn’t been an earthquake strong enough to activate it, Carrasquero said.

After several months of testing the system on its Perris Valley trains, Metrolink will begin adding it to nearby lines.

As of 2020, Bay Area Rapid Transit in Northern California has been using similar automated ShakeAlert technology that stops or slows trains.

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority also uses ShakeAlert alerts to notify its employees, rail operators, and maintenance teams of earthquakes, but does not have an automatic braking system.

Similar to many public transit systems, Metrolink’s ridership has declined since the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020. Before that, the average daily ridership on weekdays was 45,000, said Karen Bakar, a spokeswoman for Metrolink. Last month, the average daily ridership was only about 15,000. Metrolink introduces earthquake system that stops trains

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