WASHINGTON — The numerous safety violations that contributed to a deadly train crash in California last year have some federal officials asking whether the crash was an isolated incident or part of a more widespread problem, particularly with cell phone use by crew members.
A National Transportation Safety Board panel held a second day of hearings Wednesday concerning the crash that killed 25 people and injured at least 130. The crash occurred when a Metrolink passenger train failed to heed a red traffic signal and ended up on the same shared track with a Union Pacific freight train, officials said. The two trains collided head-on.
Federal investigators on Tuesday released the transcript of 43 text messages sent and received by the engineer of the Metrolink train, Robert Sanchez. The engineer also made four phone calls the day of the collision, federal records show.
Sanchez was killed in the crash.
Kitty Higgins, an NTSB board member, said that rules in place should have stopped Sanchez from using his cell phone while on duty. But inspections designed to deter cell phone use didn't seem to have much effect because people change their behavior when they know they're being watched.
"I think it's very widespread," Higgins said of cell phone use by train crews. "And I was not very impressed with the answer 'we don't know how to enforce this' (ban). We know it's an issue with the industry."
She said that cell phone use has become part of everyday life, so dealing with the problem won't be easy.
"It's ubiquitous. It's everywhere," she said. As she spoke, a cell phone rang in the hearing room, underscoring her point.
Before the accident, most rail companies had their own policies restricting cell phone use by crew members. Shortly after the wreck, the Federal Railroad Administration issued an emergency order banning use of cell phones and other electronic devices by rail workers on duty. Since then, agency inspectors have found six people who violated the rule, agency spokesman Rob Kulat said Wednesday.
The NTSB panel also heard from union officials who recommended that all passenger, freight and commuter trains employ two workers in the cab. Often an engineer works alone in the locomotive cab while the conductor is performing other duties.
"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.
But Higgins expressed doubts about the union's recommendation. She pointed out that an accident involving another Metrolink train occurred weeks after the deadly September crash and the implementation of the new policy that put 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.
The United Transportation Union, which represents railroad, bus and mass transit workers, says it supports adding a second person and a camera so long as the cameras are "not used to arbitrarily impose discipline on the workers," said union spokesman Frank Wilner.
With a second person in the cab, "the probability of an accident goes down with that sort of peer pressure and the monitoring of each other," Wilner said in an interview.
Witnesses representing the California Public Utilities Commission said the commission conducted an audit of the Metrolink system in January 2009. The audit showed numerous reporting and record-keeping mistakes, which led the commission to recommend fines by the Federal Railroad Administration.
Of the 189 train collisions that occurred nationwide last year 163, or 86 percent, were caused by "human factors," according to Federal Railroad Administration statistics.
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