Engineer Sent Text Message Seconds Before Deadly LA Commuter Train Crash

Federal investigators just confirmed that the engineer of the commuter train that <"">collided with a freight train in California was texting on his cellphone seconds before the crash.  Investigators are also working to draw links with the time on the phone and train and signal recorder data.  The last message the engineer received was at 4:21:03, more than one minute prior to impact; the final message he sent was at 4:22:01, just 22 seconds before the trains collided.  The trains—a Metrolink commuter and a Union Pacific freight—were traveling at about 40 miles an hour.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said it confirmed the engineer’s texting through his cellphone records and said the engineer, Robert M. Sanchez, 46, who was killed in the crash, sent text messages throughout his shift, which was a split tour of duty.  On the first part of his shift, he operated the train from 6:44 a.m. to 8:53 a.m., and received 21 text messages and sent 24.  On the second part of the shift, which lasted from 3 p.m. until the time of the crash at 4:22, Sanchez sent five messages and received seven.  Although it was unclear with whom he was texting, some teens–describing themselves as rail buffs—told media that just before the crash they exchanged messages with Sanchez.  Investigators obtained the teens’ cellphone records and interviewed them.  The cause of the crash has not been officially determined; however, investigators confirmed the tracks, signals, brakes, and locomotives were operating normally.  Also, while the Union Pacific engineer braked, Sanchez did not.

Michael R. Peevey, president of the state Public Utilities Commission, said Sanchez’s cellphone use is “very, very sad but I think we suspected from the very beginning something like this.”  Peevey added, “It is almost inexplicable how this thing could happen if you had your eyes open and were looking out.”  Tim Smith, the California chairman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trains, Sanchez’s union, said it supported the cellphone ban.

The California Public Utilities Commission—the office which oversees rail safety—issued an order less than one week following the crash barring train operators from using cellphones other than for emergencies or unless the train is stopped and managers give permission.  The Federal Railroad Administration said it would issue an emergency ban on the use of personal electronic devices.  The commission said it acted in response both to the Metrolink crash and another accident on June 14 on a light rail line in San Francisco in which a dozen people were injured.  That accident might have been caused by inappropriate use of a cellphone.  Metrolink said it forbids cellphone use while operating trains.

Twenty-five people were killed and over 130 were injured in the September 12 crash.  Authorities continue to work to determine if the engineer was sending text messages at the time his train failed to stop for a red signal, which is what led to the deadly collision.

Meanwhile, the Senate just approved—in a 74 to 24 vote—a rail-safety bill sponsored by California’s senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. The bill has been approved in the House and would require major railroad and commuter lines to install collision avoidance systems, including automatic braking, by December 31, 2015.

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