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Death Toll 25 in Calif. Commuter Rail Crash

Passenger Line Says Its Engineer Erred, Causing Collision With Freight Train

Scores are hurt in the worst U.S. crash in 15 years. As officials conclude a search for victims, questions arise about why the engineer of a Southern California commuter rail locomotive allegedly ran through a stop signal, sending his train slamming head-on into a freight train.
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By Ashley Surdin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 14, 2008

LOS ANGELES, Sept. 13 -- As officials concluded a search for victims of the worst U.S. train accident in 15 years, questions arose Saturday about why the engineer of a Southern California commuter rail locomotive allegedly ran through a stop signal, sending his train slamming head-on into a freight train.

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Federal investigators are looking into the cause of the Friday afternoon collision, which killed 25 people and injured 134, but a spokeswoman for the commuter service, Metrolink, said the engineer's mistake was to blame.

"At this moment, we must acknowledge that it was a Metrolink engineer that made the error that caused yesterday's accident," Denise Tyrrell said at a news conference.

The engineer, whose name was not released, died in the crash, according to Timothy L. Smith, board chairman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.

Two agencies looking into the crash, the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Railroad Association, said they would not comment on the cause of the crash until completing their investigation.

Rescue crews in the Los Angeles suburb of Chatsworth employed heavy machinery to sift through the wreckage and search for those missing. About 24 hours after the crash, they halted the recovery effort.

There were 222 people on the Metrolink train and three on the southbound Union Pacific freight train when they collided in the San Fernando Valley, sending the front of the passenger train on its side and flames and smoke billowing into the air.

Survivors described the moments after the crash as filled with confusion and terror. Passenger Jeremy Schneider, 36, said riders were pinned under one another as he warned them to escape from a fire that erupted after the crash.

The trains were sharing a track, an arrangement common throughout the country. Rather than build their tracks, commuter trains typically rent track usage from freight companies that own lines. In the Washington area, MARC and Virginia Railway Express commuter lines have such a deal with CSX.

Dispatchers monitor the shared tracks, signaling one train to pull over at a switch station and wait while another passes by.

Experts speculated Saturday that operator fatigue, a possible glitch in the stop signals or poor visibility might have contributed to the California crash.

They emphasized that train crews frequently have safeguards in place to prevent such a collision. For example, train engineers and conductors often identify signals and repeat them to each other from opposite sides of the train, and engineers are usually aware of approaching trains because they run on schedules.


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