Southern California commuter train network invested in car design that reduces crash impact

After a horrific crash a decade ago that killed 11 people and injured 180 more, Southern California's commuter train network began investing heavily in passenger cars designed to protect passengers from the full force of a collision with another train or vehicle on the tracks.

That investment appeared to pay off Tuesday, when a Metrolink train smashed into a truck about 65 miles northwest of Los Angeles. Although 28 people were taken to hospitals, 23 were not — and no one was killed.

Three of the four passenger cars, including the "cab" car at the front of the train, had "crash energy management" technology, according to Metrolink.


The idea is to disperse the energy created by impact away from the areas of passenger cars where people sit. To do so, cars are engineered with crush zones that collapse unoccupied areas, such as brake and electrical service closets, bicycle storage areas, vestibules and stairwells, according to a Federal Railroad Administration report on the technology. Cab cars at the front of trains also have a collapsible nose cone, which helps absorb impact.

A Metrolink spokeswoman once likened the overall design to creating "giant shock absorbers" for train cars.


In 2005, a Metrolink train collided with a sport-utility vehicle a man purposely left on the tracks in Glendale, not far from downtown Los Angeles. The front passenger car took the brunt of the impact. In all, 11 people were killed.

Soon after, Metrolink began investing in train cars that included crash energy management systems, and in 2010 the first of those cars rolled into use. By June 2013, the system had 137 of the cars, bought for $263 million from a South Korean company called Hyundai Rotem Inc., Metrolink spokesman Scott Johnson said.


The investigation is just underway, but it appears that the technology made at least some difference.

In a 2006 test at a federal research center in Colorado, a five-car passenger train pushed by a locomotive struck a standing locomotive coupled to two freight cars at 36 mph. In previous tests without use of a crash energy management system, crushing extended 20 feet into passenger areas, but only about three feet of the seating area was damaged in the 2006 test.

"I believe they probably prevented more significant injuries," Keith Millhouse, a member of the Metrolink board for 10 years, said of the cars involved in Tuesday's crash.


Metrolink was an early adopter. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, crash energy management equipment also is used by Amtrak, including on its Acela line on the East Coast, and two systems in Texas.


Contact Justin Pritchard at .