In Wake of LA Train Crash, Cell Phone Ban Considered

Following last week’s deadly <"">crash of an LA commuter train that killed 26 people, the California agency that regulates railroads is seeking an emergency order banning train operators from using cell phones.  The call for the cell phone ban comes amid speculation that the driver of the doomed Metrolink train was text messaging just prior to the crash, and news that federal regulators are seeking to examine the engineer’s cell phone records.

The fatal Metrolink train crash occurred around 4:22 on Friday, near Chatsworth, California, at the west end of the San Fernando Valley.  Officials said 220 people were aboard the Metrolink train, which was heading from Union Station in downtown Los Angeles to Ventura County. The commuter train was traveling at 42 mph when it ran head-on into a Union Pacific freight train traveling in the opposite direction.  The impact of the collision rammed the commuter train’s  engine backward, jamming it deep into the first passenger car.  The Associated Press reported that the Metrolink train was so mangled that some bodies had to be removed in pieces. In addition to the fatalities, 138 passengers were injured.

Two teenage train buffs who befriended engineer Robert Sanchez – who was among those killed – told an LA TV station  that they received a text message from him a minute before the crash.  The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has requested cell phone records to investigate whether Robert Sanchez might have been distracted by text messaging.  However, the NTSB said that so far, a cell phone belonging to Sanchez has not been found in the wreckage.

According to the NTSB, Sanchez for some reason failed to stop at the final red signal, which forced the train onto a track where the Union Pacific freight was traveling.  Three signals that should have warned the engineer to stop before hitting a freight train appear to have been working and visible prior to last week’s catastrophic collision, investigators said.

News that the train engineer could have been text messaging while operating the train has sparked calls for the cell phone ban.  The California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates trains in the state, is scheduled to vote on such an order tomorrow.

“Some railroad operators may have policies prohibiting the personal use of such devices, but they’re widely ignored,” Michael Peevey, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, told the Associated Press. “Our order would make it the law and we’ll go after violators. We owe it to the public.”

While Metrolink prohibits rail workers from using cell phones when working, there is no existing federal regulation covering such use.  This despite the fact that in 2003, after finding that a an engineer’s cell phone use contributed to a fatal May 2002 Texas train crash, the NTSB recommended that the Federal Railroad Administration regulate the use of cell phones by railroad employees.

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