Image: Officials work at the scene of a switch controlling a junction
Ric Francis  /  ASSOCIATED PRESS
Officials work at the scene of a commuter train crash in L.A. on Monday.
updated 9/16/2008 11:45:51 PM ET 2008-09-17T03:45:51

The commuter train engineer in Friday's deadly rail collision in Los Angeles did not hit the brakes before crashing into a freight train, investigators said Tuesday.

The National Transportation and Safety Board also announced that both engineers had only four to five seconds to react to the sight of other train coming around the bend.

Commuter train officials have blamed its engineer for running a red light and crashing into an oncoming Union Pacific freight on Friday in Chatsworth. The NTSB says the freight engineer hit the brakes about two seconds before the impact, which killed 25 people.

Meanwhile, rail service resumed Tuesday along the tracks. An Amtrak Surfliner was the first passenger train to use the newly repaired stretch of tracks, leaving the nearby Chatsworth station about 3:45 p.m. PDT. It was set to be followed about a half-hour later by a Metrolink train.

The NTSB announced details from its investigation after conducting a visibility test Tuesday to determine when the engineers involved in the crash would have been able to see each other in the moments before the nation's deadliest rail disaster in 15 years.

A Metrolink train and a Union Pacific locomotive were brought nose to nose on the tracks where the crash occurred. Investigators then backed the stand-in trains away from each other.

In the moments before Friday's collision, a Union Pacific freight train had exited a tunnel, while the commuter train was rounding a horseshoe bend.

Final test at the site
NTSB officials said it would be the final test conducted at the site. The agency did not immediately return phone messages seeking comment about the results of the test.

One test observer was Lilly Varghese, a friend of 57-year-old victim Beverly Mosley.

"I came here to pay respect to where I lost her," Varghese said. "She lost her soul here."

Varghese said she and Mosley worked together as nurses in the prenatal unit of a hospital. Mosley had two adult daughters and had become a grandmother about seven months ago.

The Metrolink commuter rail service has blamed on the failure of its engineer to stop for a red signal, but the NTSB has withheld judgment and said its investigation will take months to complete.

In Washington, Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced legislation Tuesday requiring the installation of technology to prevent train crashes and warned that there would be more disasters without it.

The California Democrat hopes to nudge Congress to pass her requirement for so-called positive train control before recessing at the end of next week. The House and Senate have already passed separate legislation to implement the technology but time is running out to reconcile the differing versions.

The technology can engage the brakes if a train misses a signal or gets off track. It has been installed on a fraction of U.S. rail tracks but not on the one where Friday's crash occurred.

Feinstein blamed "a resistance in the railroad community in America" to the price tag of installing the systems.

Failure to act now, she said, amounts to "negligence, and I'll even go as far to say I believe it's criminal negligence not to do so."

Resolutions supporting the technology were also introduced by members of the Los Angeles City Council and the county Board of Supervisors.

The Association of American Railroads, the lobbying arm for the freight railroads, has said it does not oppose the legislation but is concerned that the technology has not been perfected.

Texting to blame?
Meanwhile, federal investigators were continuing to look into whether the engineer of the Metrolink commuter train was text messaging on a cell phone before Friday's deadly wreck. The engineer, Robert Sanchez, was killed in the collision.

Investigators with the NTSB did not find a cell phone belonging to Sanchez in the wreckage, but two teenage train buffs who befriended him told KCBS-TV that they received a text message from him a minute before the crash.

Higgins said the NTSB issued a subpoena to get the engineer's cell phone records. She said Verizon Wireless had five days to respond to the demand.

Higgins also said tests at the crash site showed the red and yellow signals were working properly, and there were no obstructions that may have prevented the engineer from seeing the red light.

"The question is, did he see it as red?" Higgins said. "Did he see it as something else? Did he see it at all?"

Jerry Romero, who normally takes Metrolink 111 home but skipped it Friday to pick up a bicycle, said he was upset by reports that the engineer may have been texting.

"That would be pretty disturbing in respect to what we're going through as a society, this fascination we have with gizmos," he said.

The state's top rail safety regulator is seeking an emergency order banning train operators from using cell phones.

"Some railroad operators may have policies prohibiting the personal use of such devices, but they're widely ignored," Michael Peevey, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, said Monday.

The commission is scheduled to vote on the order Thursday.

Metrolink prohibits rail workers from using cell phones on the job, but federal regulations do not address the issue, Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Steven Kulm said.

In 2003, the NTSB recommended that the FRA regulate the use of cell phones by railroad employees on duty after finding that a coal train engineer's phone use contributed to a May 2002 accident in which two freight trains collided head-on in Texas. The coal train engineer was killed and the conductor and engineer of the other train were critically injured.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa tried to reassure them the trains are safe.

"I want to dispel any fears about taking the train," he said. "Safety has to be our No. 1 concern, and while accidents can and do happen, taking the train is still one of the safest and fastest options for commuters."

About a dozen bouquets were strung the length of the loading platform at the Simi Valley station as passengers boarded buses and were shuttled to the Chatsworth station, bypassing the tracks still being cleared of wreckage.

Regular commuters said the train load was much lighter than usual.

The NTSB said the commuter train, which carried 220 people, rolled past stop signals at 42 mph and forced its way onto a track where a Union Pacific freight was barreling toward it. Higgins said the commuter train engineer, who was among the 25 dead, had failed to stop at the final red signal. The crash also injured 138 people.

The collision occurred at a curve in the track just short of where a 500-foot-long tunnel separates the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Chatsworth from Simi Valley in Ventura County.

Jerry Romero, who normally takes the Metrolink home but skipped it Friday to pick up a bicycle, said he was disturbed by texting reports.

"That would be pretty disturbing in respect to what we're going through as a society, this fascination we have with gizmos," he said.

In 2003, the NTSB recommended that the Federal Railroad Administration regulate the use of cell phones by railroad employees on duty after finding that a coal train engineer's phone use contributed to a May 2002 accident in which two freight trains collided head-on near Clarendon, Texas. The coal train engineer was killed and the conductor and engineer of the other train were critically injured.

The California Legislature last month sent Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger a bill that would outlaw texting while driving. According to the Governors' Highway Safety Association, four states have banned texting while driving — Alaska, Minnesota, New Jersey and Washington — and similar laws are under consideration in 16 other states.

Audio recordings of contact between Sanchez and the conductor on Metrolink 111 show they were regularly communicating verbal safety checks about signals along the track until a period of radio silence as the train passed the final two signals before the wreck. The tapes captured Sanchez confirming a flashing yellow light before pulling out of the Chatsworth station.

The train may have entered a dead zone where the recording was interrupted. Investigators tried to interview the conductor about the lapse Monday, but he declined because a company representative was not able to be present, Higgins said. He is still hospitalized with serious injuries.


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