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Cellphones banned for train crews

State agency approves restriction and notes such a measure was being considered prior to the Metrolink crash.

September 19, 2008|Rich Connell and Robert J. Lopez | Times Staff Writers
  • The casket of LAPD officer Spree Desha is carried into the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels followed by family members.
The casket of LAPD officer Spree Desha is carried into the Cathedral of Our… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

SAN FRANCISCO — After two California train accidents this summer in which cellphone use may have been a factor, state regulators were preparing a ban on the wireless devices for rail crews in the weeks prior to the Metrolink crash in Chatsworth that killed 25 people.

The grim irony was disclosed Thursday by state Public Utilities Commission officials as they voted to impose the cellphone ban. It came a day after federal investigators confirmed that a Metrolink engineer had been sending and receiving text messages while on duty last Friday, the day of the head-on collision with a Union Pacific freight train, the worst California train disaster in 50 years.

Investigators are trying to determine why the engineer did not heed signal lights warning that another train was heading his way.

The commission voted unanimously to bypass normal procedures and impose an immediate ban on the use of wireless devices by train engineers, conductors and brakemen while on duty. The only exception would be in emergencies, after a train has stopped and permission has been received from superiors.

"It's extremely unfortunate that it took this terrible Metrolink tragedy to focus our attention on this very serious issue," said Commissioner Rachelle B. Chong.

Months-long concern

The commission's concern arose in June when a San Francisco Municipal Railway train ran a light and hit a stopped train, injuring 16 people, said Richard Clark, director of the commission's division that oversees rail safety. Then in July, a track worker was killed in Sacramento.

Members of the commission, which shares some railroad oversight and accident investigation responsibilities with the federal government, said they want their agency to step up rail safety efforts.

Among directions given Thursday was a call to conduct an examination of train crew work schedules, including long, split-shift days such as those worked by the Metrolink engineer in the Chatsworth crash.

The agency said it would also push harder for automated train-stopping systems, which federal investigators say would have prevented the Chatsworth collision.

Political pressure increased this week to make the automated safety systems mandatory after California's U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer introduced legislation that would require railroad companies to install the systems by 2012 in high-risk areas where passenger and freight trains share tracks, and in all other areas by 2014.

On Wednesday, the Metrolink board of directors unanimously approved a motion to support the Senate bill.

At the utilities commission hearing, commissioners noted that the federal government, which has primary responsibility for rail safety, is still studying the issue of regulating cellphone use by railroad crew members.

"I was astounded to hear that there was no rule," said Commissioner Dian M. Grueneich.

In 2003, the National Transportation Safety Board urged the Federal Railroad Administration to adopt regulations to control the use of wireless communication devices by railroad employees.

The recommendation came after two crashes a year earlier, including one involving a Metrolink train in Placentia.

In that April 2002 incident, three passengers died when a Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight train slammed into a stopped commuter train.

The conductor and engineer on the freight train later told investigators they had used their cellphones during the trip but had finished their conversations before arriving in Placentia, according to the safety board.

The cellphones were not found to have been a factor in the accident, but they focused attention on the problem.

A month later, two freight trains collided in Texas. Safety board investigators concluded that an engineer on one of the trains may have been distracted because he was using his cellphone.

A spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, which regulates the railroad industry, said this week that the agency has convened a working group to study the possibility of enacting a regulation governing the use of wireless devices.

Ted Lopatkiewicz, a spokesman for the safety board, said Thursday that his agency has told the federal rail administration that "their response to our 2003 cellphone recommendation is unacceptable."

Tightening enforcement

Commuter and freight rail systems, including Metrolink, have had various policies restricting cellphone use, according to the Public Utilities Commission.

But "these rules seem to lack appropriate enforcement," said Commission President Michael R. Peevey.

Under the order approved Thursday, rail systems operating in California could be fined up to $20,000 per violation if employees are caught using cellphones. In some instances, rail service could be halted, said Clark, of the commission's rail safety division.

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