Image: Hearing on train accident
Alex Brandon  /  AP
The site of a fatal September train collision in Chatsworth, Calif., is displayed on the screen as the National Transportation Safety Board in Washington holds a hearing on the accident this week.
updated 3/4/2009 2:51:51 PM ET 2009-03-04T19:51:51

A second employee in the cabs of all passenger, freight and commuter trains could help avoid accidents like the one in Southern California last year that killed 25 people and injured at least 130, union officials told a federal safety panel Wednesday.

Often an engineer works alone in the locomotive cab while the conductor is performing other duties. That was the case last September when a Metrolink passenger train ended up on the same shared track with a Union Pacific freight train and the two slammed head-on at about 40 mph.

"There are occasions where something's going to happen. A second set of eyes, in our opinion, would go a long way in preventing accidents," said William Walpert of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.

He testified on the second day of the National Transportation Safety Board's hearing on the crash.

Kitty Higgins, an NTSB board member, expressed doubts about the union's recommendation, pointing out that an accident involving another Metrolink train occurred weeks after the deadly September crash and the implementation of the new policy of having a second worker in the cab.

"I can understand from the unions' standpoint why they would like more employees driving these trains, but from a safety standpoint, I think the jury's still out as to whether that's the formula for solving this problem," Higgins said.

Texting on train
On Tuesday, federal investigators released the transcript of text messages sent and received by engineer Robert Sanchez as the NTSB opened its hearing on the collision. The board is not expected to issue a final report for a few months.

A supervisor says Sanchez was warned twice about cell phone use while on duty. Despite that warning, the engineer sent and received 43 text messages and made four phone calls the day of the collision, federal records show.

Sanchez was killed in the collision.

Text messages indicated he had allowed a 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 message four days before the crash.

Officials with Connex Railroad LLC, the contractor that provides engineers who run Metrolink trains, said 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 monitor their employees' cell phone use.

Metrolink issued a statement saying the engineers' actions were unacceptable and that it has made several safety improvements since the accident, including putting a second worker in the cab, buying cameras to monitor the cab and installing technology that can automatically stop the train at certain locations.

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