WASHINGTON (AP) – Federal investigators said Thursday that railway companies should have to install and monitor audio and video recorders in locomotive cabs to help discourage the kind of distractions blamed in a head-on collision that killed 25 people in suburban Los Angeles.
Safety experts said the engineer of a commuter train was sending and receiving text messages on his cell phone, and he ran a red signal light before slamming into a Union Pacific freight train.
A contributing factor in the crash Sept. 12, 2008, in Chatsworth, Calif., was the absence of technology that would have allowed monitors to stop the train once it went through the red signal, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
The texting engineer, Robert Sanchez, died in the crash, which also injured more than 100 people. The last of his text messages went out 22 seconds before impact. Investigators said Sanchez sent and received 43 text messages and made four phone calls while on duty that day.
Board members noted that Sanchez had been warned twice before about using his cell phone while on duty. They also said the freight conductor had sent and received text messages while operating his train, but investigators did not find this was a distraction that contributed to the accident.
“This is not just one individual doing this. In the other locomotive, another company’s employee was doing the same thing. It’s becoming more widespread and we have to nip this in the bud now,” said the board chairman, Deborah Hersman, after Thursday’s hearing on the crash.
“I don’t think railroading is unique. We’re seeing these distractions explode across the board in all modes of transportation, and we have to address it,” she said.
The NTSB spent 16 months investigating the crash, which involved a Metrolink commuter train traveling along a track reserved for a Union Pacific freight train. Each train was traveling faster than 40 mph when the collision occurred. Board members noted that the Metrolink engineer never hit the train’s emergency brakes, and they said that added to their belief he was distracted.
Four eyewitnesses told investigators that the signal light in question was green when the train left the Chatsworth station moments before the crash. Investigators said they believed the witnesses were mistaken.
“All recorded data and physical evidence in this accident are consistent with the Metrolink train failing to stop at the red signal at Topanga and continuing along the main track reserved for the Union Pacific train,” said Wayne Workman, the agency’s chief investigator for the accident.
Hersman said witness testimony can be fallible, while two devices recording the color signals were more reliable.
Another board member, Robert Sumwalt, said he doesn’t doubt the four witnesses believe they saw a green light, but he noted that the light was almost always green when the Metrolink train approached it, so they expected it to be.
“It’s likely that those witnesses saw a light, couldn’t discern the color clearly and assumed that it was green due to the expectation that most of the other times it has been green,” Sumwalt said. “Does that sound like a plausible scenario?”
“I would say yes,” Dr. Loren Groff, an NTSB analyst, told the board.
As a result of the accident, regulators banned cell phone use by train operators, and Congress passed legislation requiring rail companies to install the computer systems that can stop trains traveling at excessive speeds or in danger of a wreck. The systems, called positive train control, must be in place by the end of 2015.
“The NTSB’s findings confirm that positive train control could have prevented this terrible tragedy,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. “I will continue to fight for federal funding to make sure we implement this life-saving technology as quickly as possible.”
Metrolink, which operates a 512-mile network in Southern California, is also using video cameras in its trains to record activities inside the locomotive cab.
“Sadly, it took this accident and 25 more lives and an act of Congress to move this technology from testing to reality on passenger rail lines,” Hersman said.
Metrolink’s vice chairman, Richard Katz, said he agreed with the report’s conclusions, including its recommendations for more safety systems, such as cameras in locomotives.
“What we take away from the report is that this is a case of an engineer who screwed up, but you also have to have in place redundant systems” in case of human or mechanical error, he said.
Katz said the report also settled the issue of whether the light was red or green but added, “whether it was green or red, he was texting and not looking at the light.”
The engineer “clearly didn’t follow the rules despite repeated warnings.”
Associated Press writer Robert Jablon in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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