WASHINGTON — A 16-month investigation into a deadly rail crash in California points to a commuter train engineer's text messaging as the primary cause rather than malfunctioning signs along the track, safety officials indicated Thursday.
"Tragically, an instant message turned an ordinary commute into a catastrophe," said Deborah Hersman, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
Despite eyewitness testimony to the contrary, investigators said the engineer failed to stop the train at a red signal. The crash on Sept. 12, 2008, in Chatsworth, Calif., involved a Metrolink commuter train traveling along a track reserved for a Union Pacific freight train.
The trains collided head-on, killing 25 people and injuring more than 100. Each train was traveling faster than 40 mph.
Failure to stop
"All recorded data and physical evidence in this accident are consistent with the Metrolink train failing to stop at the red signal at Topanga and continuing along the main track reserved for the Union Pacific train," said Wayne Workman, the agency's chief investigator for the accident.
Four witnesses say the light in question was green when the Metrolink train left a station moments before the crash. Hersman said witness testimony can be fallible, while two devices recording the color signals were more reliable.
As a result of the accident, regulators banned cell phone use by train operators, and Congress passed legislation requiring rail companies to install the computer systems that can stop trains to traveling at excessive speeds or in danger of a wreck. The systems must be in place by the end of 2015.
Metrolink, which operates a 512-mile network in Southern California, is also using video cameras in its trains to record activities inside the locomotive cab.
Cameras now in cab
"Sadly, it took this accident and 25 more lives and an act of Congress to move this technology from testing to reality on passenger rail lines," Hersman said.
The board is expected to make more recommendations and issue a probable cause for the accident when the hearing concludes.
Hersman indicated early in the hearing that the focus would be on the engineer's text messaging while on duty. The engineer, Robert Sanchez, died in the crash. The last of his text messages went out 22 seconds before impact. In all, investigators said he sent and received 43 text messages and made four phone calls while on duty that day.
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