By Ashley Surdin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 19, 2008
LOS ANGELES, Sept. 18 -- California's rail safety regulators Thursday temporarily banned train operators from using cellphones on duty, one day after investigators confirmed that the engineer of a commuter train involved in last week's deadly collision had sent and received text messages while working.
The National Transportation Safety Board, the lead investigator of the crash, on Wednesday confirmed that Metrolink engineer Robert Sanchez had sent and received text messages while on duty Sept. 12. Whether he was doing so close to the time of the accident is still under investigation, the board said. Teenage rail enthusiasts told a local television station that they received a message from Sanchez one minute before the crash.
The NTSB has not confirmed the cause of the crash but has ruled out train and track failures and most mechanical errors, including signal problems. Investigators have focused on human error, including health problems, fatigue and crew interactions.
Investigators have already determined that the passenger train blew through a red stop signal and slammed head-on into a Union Pacific freight train, killing 25 people and injuring 135 others. The accident is the worst U.S. train collision in 15 years.
In issuing its ban on Thursday, members of the state Public Utilities Commission cited other mishaps in which the use of cellphones and other hand-held devices may have played a role. These include the June 14 accident when two San Francisco streetcars smash into each other, injuring 16 people, and another accident on July 24, when a Sacramento light-rail train struck and killed a regional transit employee as he was lubricating the tracks.
Michael R. Peevey, president of the PUC, which issues safety regulations governing rail carriers in California, said that while it is not certain the cellphones played a part or caused these crashes, "early indications in all three cases are that a cellphone may be the contributing factor." Thursday's unanimously approved emergency ban on the use of such devices will protect the public until permanent rules are established, he said.
No federal rail safety regulations address engineers' use of cellphones or similar devices, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. Most rail companies prohibit such use, but the rules are widely ignored, Peevey said.
Investigators determined that Sanchez never applied the brakes after passing through the last red signal. Both trains were going about 40 mph, giving each engineer about four to five seconds to see the other before colliding head-on.
A conductor on the Metrolink train told investigators that he and Sanchez did not communicate about signals preceding the crash. Higgins said signal call-outs are protocol and the responsibility of the engineer.
On Sept. 2, Sanchez also was reportedly involved in a fatal train crash with a pedestrian. Higgins said the NTSB was looking into the incident.
The crash is also spurring a push for new federal laws. Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer of California introduced legislation that would require all major U.S. railroads to install technology designed to prevent collisions.
Known as positive train control, it uses GPS technology to monitor train locations and movement, automatically stopping those that miss signals, run on the wrong tracks or exceed safe speeds. It is used in parts of the country but not in California, where freight and passenger trains share more track than in any other state.
Federal investigators have said that such technology could have prevented the crash in the Los Angeles suburb of Chatsworth.