Frank Kohler sometimes has trouble remembering his address.
"That must be because of the crash," said the Simi Valley man, who, after several strained seconds, manages to recall the street number of his townhouse. "I knew in the address that there were twos and fours and eights, but I couldn't figure out the correct starting number to get me rolling."
Kohler, 67, was knocked unconscious and seriously injured in the Sept. 12, 2008 Metrolink crash in Chatsworth that killed 25 people, including 21 from Ventura County. The 4:22 p.m. accident, one of the worst in U.S. railroad history, injured about 100 other passengers. It occurred when a Metrolink commuter train operated by Connex Railroad LLC, a subsidiary of French conglomerate Veolia, collided head-on with a Union Pacific freight train.
A National Transportation Safety Board investigation concluded the crash was caused by engineer Robert Sanchez, who was distracted sending text messages and ran a red light. Sanchez was one of those killed.
Reflecting on Thursday's fifth anniversary of the deadly disaster, Kohler fears it's only a matter of time before another such crash occurs.
"The legacy is that it could happen to anyone," said the former critical care nurse. "And it's going to happen again in the future unless measures are taken to prevent it."
NEW SAFETY MEASURES
Under a law enacted by Congress a month after the accident, so-called positive train control systems are supposed to be operational on railroad lines by the end of 2015. The systems use GPS, wireless radio and computers to remotely monitor trains and ideally avoid collisions. Some railroad companies are lobbying Congress to push the deadline back to at least 2020, but not Metrolink.
Metrolink intends to become the first railroad in the country to have the system installed by the second quarter of 2014 at a cost of $210 million, spokesman Jeff Lustgarten said.
"There really isn't a day that goes by that we as an organization don't think about that horrible day in Chatsworth," he said. "But we have come a very, very long way since then and we are now considered a national leader in rail safety."
In addition to the scheduled implementation of positive train control, Metrolink has installed inward-facing cameras in all 52 locomotives to monitor engineers. The cameras were recommended by the NTSB after the crash. Metrolink also has replaced 137 of its 205 passenger cars with newer, more collision-absorbent cars that use crash energy management technology.
And there is a new culture of safety at the company, Lustgarten said.
"It's been something that's been incorporated into every aspect of our operations," he said.
Shouldn't it have been in place before the collision?
"Yes, it should have been," he conceded. "We should have been more cognizant."
Moorpark City Councilman Keith Millhouse, who sits on Metrolink's board, said the collision's legacy is that it "will be saving other people's lives down the line because the actions that we've undertaken as a result of this crash are designed to ensure that things like this never happen again."
Michael Setty, administrative director of the Train Riders Association of California, said that while he welcomes the new safety measures, the U.S. still lags behind Europe and Japan in terms of rail safety.
"For instance, the Europeans have been doing positive train control for years," he said. "U.S. commuter railroads and the Federal Railroad Administration need to take a much more detailed look at what they do overseas."
Kohler had commuted by train to his job at Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center in Burbank for six years.
The day of the crash "was like any other," he said. He boarded the train and called his girlfriend to tell her he was on his way home.
"I had closed my eyes and realized that between Chatsworth station and Simi station there's 10 minutes, so I told myself I'm not going to fall asleep," he said. "And the next thing I know I'm lying on the ground and I'm thinking, 'Why am I lying on the ground?'