WASHINGTON — A commuter train engineer text messaged a promise to a teenage railroad fan — "I'm gonna do all the radio talkin' ... ur gonna run the locomotive" — minutes before a crash that killed 25 people in California last year, according to documents from federal investigators.
The transcript of text messages sent and received by engineer Robert Sanchez were released Tuesday as the National Transportation Safety Board opened a two-day hearing into the Sept. 12 collision in the Los Angeles suburb of Chatsworth that also injured at least 130 people.
Investigators sketched out the days and minutes leading up to the deadly crash between the Metrolink train and a Union Pacific freight train that ended up on the same shared track and slammed head-on at 40 mph. Drivers could see the oncoming train for about five seconds before the wreck occurred.
Investigators described a rash of safety violations, from a stop light that went unheeded to cell phone use and furious text messaging — actions that could have caused the collision.
Federal investigators said Sanchez sent and received 43 text messages and made four phone calls while on duty that day, including one that he sent 22 seconds before the collision. Investigators said the large number of text messages was not uncommon for the engineer in the days leading up to the crash.
Sanchez was killed in the collision.
Teen rode in train cab
The texts indicated he had allowed the unidentified teenager to ride in the cab several days before the crash, and that he was planning to let him run the train between four stations on the evening of the crash.
"I'm gonna do all the radio talkin' ... ur gonna run the locomotive & I'm gonna tell u how to do it," Sanchez wrote in one text.
Unauthorized ride-alongs are considered a serious violation of safety regulations.
After the crash, two teenage train buffs told KCBS-TV they received a text message from Sanchez minutes before the crash.
In an interview with investigators detailed in the newly released documents, the teenager acknowledged he was in the locomotive cab within a week before the collision but said the train was out of service and Sanchez did not allow him to approach the controls.
He said he met Sanchez last May through a group of friends who were also rail fans. He said he and Sanchez communicated by phone and text messages once or twice a week, and that they mostly talked about train operations.
Investigators said there was no sign of mechanical error involving the Metrolink train that was carrying 220 passengers.
"All the evidence is consistent with the Metrolink engineer failing to stop at a red signal," investigator Wayne Workman told the NTSB's Board of Inquiry.
Investigators also found that the conductor of the Union Pacific train received and sent numerous text messages while on duty. The conductor tested positive for marijuana, but he was not driving the train at the time of the crash.
The NTSB panel focused on cell phone use by train crew members; the operation of trackside signals designed to prevent collisions; and oversight and compliance with safety procedures during the crash.
Status of signal in question
Robert Heldenbrand, the conductor of the Metrolink train, contends the signal light was actually green as the train left the station about a mile from the crash site. However, Workman said the signal in question could not be viewed clearly from the station.
Heldenbrand also told investigators he had warned a supervisor months before the deadly crash about Sanchez's on-duty cell phone use. He said he followed up with the same supervisor two days before the collision and was assured his concern would be addressed.
His contention is the basis of dozens of negligence lawsuits that allege Connex Railroad LLC, the contractor that provides engineers who run Metrolink trains, knew about the cell phone use but did nothing about it.
Rick Dahl, a representative of Connex, told NTSB's Board of Inquiry that the company had a strict policy against use of cell phones. When that policy went into effect in September 2006, officials stopped and boarded trains to check their employees' cell phone use. In one instance, Dahl said Sanchez's cell phone rang as he was interviewing him.
"I told the engineer he was in violation of our policy and that I was going to take an exception to that," Dahl said. "The engineer told me he knows the policy and forgot to turn it off when he stowed it away in the morning."
Board member Kitty Higgins said she was troubled by records indicating a few problems with the engineer and crew before the accident.
'What the heck else'
"It raises questions for me about what the heck else was going on out there," she said.
Higgins asked Connex officials what they were doing to ensure that what occurred on the Metrolink train was an anomaly when it came to following company and federal policies.
Company officials said if employees are intent on getting around the rules, "there's not a lot we can do."
"If you have an employee that's not going to comply with the rules, it's very difficult. But we have stepped up our game," said Tom McDonald of Connex.
Higgins acknowledged that Metrolink policies prohibiting cell phone use and ride-alongs, "but unless you have effective steps for getting people to comply with them, they're meaningless," Higgins said.
The crash prompted a federal ban on cell phone use by rail workers and led Congress to pass a new law requiring so-called "positive train control" technology that can stop a train if it's headed for a collision.
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