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Engineer in fatal Metrolink crash let teens ride in cab, sources say

Text messages show Robert M. Sanchez took rail fans for ride-alongs in violation of safety regulations.

February 28, 2009|Rich Connell and Robert J. Lopez

Federal investigators have cellphone text messages indicating that the engineer blamed for last fall's Metrolink rail disaster in Chatsworth sometimes allowed teenagers to ride with him in the cabs of locomotives while carrying passengers, The Times has learned

There is no evidence that any teenagers, described by sources as rail enthusiasts, rode the commuter rail with engineer Robert M. Sanchez on the day of the accident last Sept. 12.

But unauthorized ride-alongs are considered a serious violation of safety regulations and could create dangerous distractions. The disclosures are certain to intensify questions about the oversight of Metrolink crews, which has been a key focus of the inquiry in the wake of the collision that killed 25 people and injured 135 more.

For reasons that remain unclear, Sanchez ran through a red signal light and slammed into a Union Pacific freight train on a section of single, shared track.

The text messages apparently show that teenagers rode with him on more than one occasion, according to the sources who spoke on the condition that they not be named because they were not authorized to speak about the ongoing investigation.

The disclosure comes as the National Transportation Safety Board prepares to release details on text messaging and other factors in what ranks as the worst rail crash in modern California history during a two-day hearing that begins Tuesday in Washington, D.C.

Safety investigators have said that Sanchez received and sent 57 text messages while on duty the day of the crash, including one 22 seconds before impact. Some of those messages reportedly involved young rail fans in the Chatsworth area.

A Metrolink spokesman declined to respond Friday to what he called "unsubstantiated allegations regarding the ongoing NTSB investigation." Reached for comment, a spokeswoman for the firm that provides Metrolink train crews, Connex Railroad LLC, also declined.

Speaking generally, spokeswoman Erica Swerdlow said, "We put safety at the forefront. All our safety policies meet and exceed all federal regulations."

NTSB officials have said that Sanchez failed to heed warning signals and barreled past a red light shortly after leaving the Chatsworth train station.

But the color of that light has been disputed by witnesses. The Times reported late last year that three people at the Chatsworth station -- as well as the only surviving Metrolink crew member who was aboard -- said the light appeared to them to be green. If it was, the engineer would not have been required to stop the train at the signal.

The NTSB will begin its hearing next week by examining the Metrolink signal system. The safety board has said that at least three separate tests show that the red light was visible and that the signal system was working properly at the time of the accident.

--

rich.connell@latimes.com

robert.lopez@latimes.com

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