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NTSB blames engineer for 2008 Metrolink crash, urges railroads to install cameras to monitor train crews

Engineer Robert Sanchez's prolific text messaging was "egregious," safety panel chairwoman says.

January 22, 2010|By Robert J. Lopez and Dan Weikel and Rich Connell
  • Robert Sanchez's text messaging was "egregious," NTSB Chairwoman Deborah A.P. Hersman said, citing records of his phone use.
Robert Sanchez's text messaging was "egregious," NTSB…

Reporting from Los Angeles and Washington — Federal safety officials called for railroads to install cameras and voice recorders in every locomotive control cab in the nation as they publicly warned Thursday that cellphone texting by engineers and conductors was a growing and lethal danger.

The call came as members of the National Transportation Safety Board publicly concluded their investigation into the deadly collision of a commuter train and a freight train in Chatsworth in 2008 -- a crash they blamed on a Metrolink engineer who passed a stop signal as he sent a message from his phone.

The engineer's prolific text messaging was "egregious," NTSB Chairwoman Deborah A.P. Hersman said, citing records of his phone use. "This was an accident waiting to happen."

In general, text messaging by train crews "is becoming more widespread," Hersman told reporters after the board's public session in Washington ended its 16-month Chatsworth inquiry. "I think we have to nip this in the bud right now."

The board's sharp language and findings blaming the engineer could shift tens of millions of dollars in liability away from Metrolink, a taxpayer-subsidized five-county agency, and onto the private contractor that hired and supervised the engineer, Connex Railroad, some officials said. Connex and Metrolink have sued each other over financial responsibility, and Metrolink has noted that the contractor is responsible for the "willful misconduct" of its employees.

The collision, which left 25 dead and 135 injured, could have been prevented by an automatic braking system that NTSB regulators had long recommended, board members noted after the daylong meeting. The Chatsworth crash prompted Congress to pass a bill requiring railroads to install such systems within six years.

The panel's call for video surveillance of train crews in tens of thousands of locomotive control cabs moves a hotly contested Southern California issue to the national stage. After the accident, Metrolink put cameras in its trains. The powerful Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen challenged the action in court, claiming cameras are an invasion of privacy and won't prevent accidents.

But the safety board found Thursday that other forms of enforcing bans on electronic devices, chiefly field inspections, have proved inadequate. Metrolink had a policy that prohibited cellphones from even being turned on in control cabs.

Only constant monitoring would have stopped engineer Robert M. Sanchez, who died in the collision, Hersman said. Cameras would mean "management cannot turn a blind eye to bad actors who are not doing their job," she said.

Records also show the Union Pacific conductor on the train that Metrolink 111 slammed into was improperly texting, Hersman noted.

The board's video camera recommendation could have a dramatic effect on the industry. "This is a game changer," she said. "We're still riding on 19th century technology that relies on using an extra person in the cab" to ensure compliance with some key safety rules.

Whether the recommendations will be implemented depends on the Federal Railroad Administration, which regulates the industry. Both the railroad administration and the American Assn. of Railroads said Thursday they would study the issue.

Experts say legal claims by survivors of those killed or injured in the crash could exceed a $200-million federal liability cap. Metrolink had $150 million in insurance at the time of the crash.

R. Edward Pfiester Jr., a lead attorney representing crash victims and relatives, said the NTSB's findings could bolster lawsuits against Connex because of the engineer's misconduct and the company's lack of effective enforcement.

"Metrolink's part of the system worked, but not our contractor's oversight," said the commuter agency's chairman, Keith Millhouse. "It was apparent that Connex knew the engineer was a problem and either did not take it seriously or didn't enforce the rules."

A Connex spokeswoman said such comments were false. Although Sanchez had been counseled twice about cellphone rules, "at no time did Connex management have a report or knowledge that Mr. Sanchez ever used a cellphone while operating a moving train," said spokeswoman Erica Swerdlow. A company consultant this week suggested that Metrolink's failure to install a collision-avoidance braking system was a major factor in the crash.

Although board members urged deployment of so-called positive train control, they were reminded of the difficulties Metrolink faces in fulfilling its commitment to install the system by 2012. The commuter agency still needs $100 million for the project, said NTSB investigator Wayne Workman. "That is a tough challenge."

The NTSB also concluded Thursday that witness statements that the final track signal light was green for Metrolink 111 were not considered reliable, given technical data that indicated the light was red.

robert.lopez@latimes.com

dan.wiekel@latimes.com

rich.connell@latimes.com

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