The Federal Railroad Administration Bans Cellphone Use by On-Duty Train Operators

The Federal Railroad Administration issued an emergency order prohibiting all train operators from using cellphones while on duty.  The new rule was issued yesterday and comes years after it first considered the matter, two weeks after the California Public Utilities Commission imposed the same restriction, and one day after the National Transportation Safety Board issued a preliminary report saying that text messages were sent and received by Metrolink engineer Robert M. Sanchez’s cellphone in the moments before his <"">commuter train collided with a Union Pacific freight train September 12.  Twenty-five people died and 135 sustained injuries in that accident.  “Everyone involved with rail travel deserves the full attention and focus of train operators, without exception and without excuse,” the Federal Railroad Administration said in a statement.

The order contains a list of recent train accidents that involved cellphone use.  One such accident occurred this summer when a Union Pacific brakeman walked across tracks while talking on his cellphone.  He was struck and killed by a train.  Another involved a 2006 head-on collision in Texas between two Union Pacific freight trains. The Federal Railroad Administration later determined that the engineer was talking on his phone and not paying attention.

Just two weeks ago, a Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) spokesman said it was merely continuing to study the issue and that cellphone use by train engineers already was banned by railroads, but such a ban would be difficult to enforce.  “Think, as a practical matter, “how an FRA inspector would actually catch an engineer with a cellphone,” FRA spokesman Rob Kulat wrote to a Times reporter. “The engineer would have to be on the phone with the phone in his right hand as he’s passing an FRA inspector who just happens to be there.  It’s a highly unlikely scenario.”  Kulat said the FRA has only 270 inspectors to watch over the nation’s train traffic, and that having them be responsible for cellphone enforcement would “divert scarce resources into an area that is a problem only on a rare, an exceptional occasion.”

Meanwhile, 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 September 12 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.

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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