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Investigators focus on whether signal was broken or missed

Federal officials rebuke Metrolink for assigning fault too soon. Service may resume late today.

September 15, 2008|Louis Sahagun, Scott Glover and Ted Rohrlich | Times Staff Writers

Federal officials investigating Friday's fatal Metrolink train crash focused Sunday on whether a signal that should have alerted the engineer to stop the train was working properly, and whether it went unheeded.

National Transportation Safety Board member Kitty Higgins said a computer reading indicated the last signal before the collision site was displaying a red light. But she said investigators wanted to make sure it wasn't a false reading.

Higgins criticized Metrolink for saying Saturday that an engineer had been at fault for failing to heed the red signal, causing the crash with a Union Pacific freight train that so far has claimed 25 lives and left 135 injured, 40 critically.

"I don't know on what basis Metrolink made that statement. We really work very hard not to jump to conclusions," Higgins said at a Sunday news conference in Woodland Hills.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, September 27, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 67 words Type of Material: Correction
Radio report: An article in Section A on Sept. 14 about the Metrolink commuter rail crash in Chatsworth credited KCBS-AM (740) with a report that teenagers had sent text messages to the train's engineer. The information was actually reported by CBS radio and television affiliates in Los Angeles. KCBS-AM is a Bay Area affiliate. The error was repeated in an article in Section A on Sept. 15.

The conflict between the agencies surfaced as authorities pulled apart the wreckage in an attempt to clear the tracks in Chatsworth and restore service by this evening, and hundreds of grieving friends and relatives of the dead gathered to pray in Simi Valley, the train's destination.

The train passed four signals between De Soto Avenue and Nashville Street that, if working correctly, would have flashed yellow or red to warn the engineer to slow and stop.

The engineer, stationed at the front of the train, and conductor, stationed at the back, customarily call each other to repeat signals seen by the engineer, Higgins said. Officials have listened to recordings and found no indication that the engineer and conductor exchanged information on the last two signals, one of which should have been flashing yellow and the other red. The investigators were unsure whether "dead zones" might have interfered with such communication.

Higgins also disclosed that the Metrolink train "blew through" a switch controlling a junction with a railroad siding closest to the accident site. A data recorder said the Metrolink train was traveling at 42 mph when it passed the switch.

NTSB officials have interviewed a Metrolink dispatcher based in Pomona who said he had set up the signals and the switch so that the Union Pacific freighter and the Metrolink train could pass without incident. But Higgins disputed a Metrolink assertion that the dispatcher had tried to contact the train about a potential collision course, a message that allegedly arrived too late.

"By the time the dispatcher realized there was something wrong, the accident had already occurred," Higgins said. She added that the conductor, who was seriously injured, called the dispatcher to notify him of the accident. The conductor had not been interviewed by her agency, she added.

A Metrolink spokesman earlier Sunday gave a different account, saying that a Metrolink dispatcher had been alerted to the potential crash by a computer signal and tried to warn the engineer that he was about to collide with a freight train. The spokesman said the dispatcher reached the conductor after the crash had occurred.

Metrolink officials said they expected regular service on the Los Angeles-Ventura County line to resume in time for evening rush hour today and made plans to ferry passengers by bus between Ventura County and Chatsworth until then.

Regular riders on the route said the Metrolink train heading toward Simi Valley often stopped at the junction to wait for a Union Pacific freight train headed toward downtown Los Angeles to switch to the siding.

There are four signals leading up to the crash site: at De Soto Avenue, where the siding begins; at Lassen Street; at the platform at the Chatsworth station; and near Nashville Street, where the siding converges with the main line again.

If they were functioning properly, the early signals would have been yellow or red and the final one, red.

Higgins said investigators are awaiting toxicology reports on the engineer, which should be available in two to three weeks.

A union representing 125,000 rail workers -- though not those who work for Metrolink -- on Sunday said Metrolink's decision to blame the engineer was "terribly premature."

A union spokesman noted that the engineer, who died in the crash, might have been disabled by a heart attack or stroke. The engineer had at least 10 years of experience. He had worked for Amtrak and more recently for a private firm, Veolia Transportation, that provides Metrolink with engineers. The Simi Valley-bound Metrolink train he drove Friday was carrying 225 passengers when it collided with the Union Pacific freight train descending into the San Fernando Valley.

Authorities Sunday also released the names of two previously unidentified victims: Ronald G. Grace, 55, and Roger Spacey, 60, both of Simi Valley.

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