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Feds: Audio sheds light on deadly train wreck

Investigators said audio recordings from a commuter train were missing required verbal safety checks between the engineer and the conductor in right before the train collided, killing 25.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Federal investigators said late Sunday that audio recordings from a commuter train were missing required verbal safety checks between the engineer and the conductor in the seconds before the train collided with a freight engine, killing 25 in Southern California.

Kitty Higgins, a board member for the National Transportation Safety Board, said the recordings show the engineer and conductor called out and confirmed light signals along the route, but the tapes were missing calls for the last two lights the train passed just before the fiery wreck.

She said the last communication was recorded as the train passed a flashing yellow light.

The audio record went silent as the train passed a solid yellow light and then a red signal, which indicated the approach of another engine

Cell phone record sought
Earlier, federal investigators said they would look for cell phone records of two teenagers and a train engineer as part of the probe into whether text messages factored into the fiery commuter train crash.

Higgins said her agency is also talking with the two teens and their families. The teens told KCBS-TV that they received a text message from the engineer at 4:22 p.m. Friday, just moments before the deadly crash.

Higgins said that the engineer's cell phone was not recovered at the crash site Sunday.

She declined to say what the teens and their families have told investigators thus far.

Metrolink announced Saturday — just 19 hours after the crash — that its preliminary investigation determined the engineer failed to heed a red signal light, leading to the collision with a Union Pacific freight train. The Metrolink engineer was among the dead, the NTSB said. His name has not been released. A total of 135 people were injured.

NTSB spokesman Terry Williams said Sunday that 11 investigators were at work, some of them picking through wreckage — inspecting the tracks, the equipment and the train signals — while others interviewed a Metrolink dispatcher. He said he didn't know if they were also talking to four surviving train crew members.

Was engineer text messaging?
Williams said he couldn't confirm reports that the engineer was text messaging shortly before the crash but said investigators would look into it.

A local television station reported that the engineer had exchanged a brief text message with a teenager. KCBS said the teen was among a group of rail fans who befriended the engineer and asked him questions about his work.

Metrolink spokeswoman Denise Tyrrell said she would consider it "unbelievable" that an engineer would be text messaging while operating a train.

There was no change in the death toll Sunday. There were no new reports of any injured passengers dying at hospitals and the crash site had been cleared of bodies, said Lt. Cheryl MacWillie of the Los Angeles County coroner's office.

Tyrrell said Saturday that the company was stepping ahead of the NTSB in suggesting a cause of the accident because "we want to have an honest dialogue with our community." She said internal investigators had reviewed dispatcher recordings and operation of the trackside signal system.

Trains share tracks through tunnels
Part of the railroad's safety system involves a series of signals that tell engineers whether the path ahead is clear. According to Metrolink, the engineer missed a stop signal shortly before the accident site — the last of three that would have warned another train was ahead on a single stretch of track. In that area, trains going both ways share track that winds through a series of narrow tunnels.

The NTSB did not rule out Metrolink's theory but will complete its witness interviews and review of evidence — which could take a year — before announcing conclusions.

NTSB's Higgins said rescue teams on Saturday recovered two data recorders from the Metrolink train and one data recorder and one video recorder from the freight train. The video has pictures from forward-looking cameras and the data recorders have information on speed, braking patterns and whether the horn was used.

The passenger train was believed to have been traveling about 40 mph.

The collision occurred on a horseshoe-shaped section of track near a 500-foot-long tunnel underneath Stoney Point Park in the San Fernando Valley. There is a siding at one end of the tunnel where one train can wait for another to pass.

Higgins noted that a pair of switches that control whether a train goes onto the siding were open. One of them should have been closed, she said.

"The indication is that it was forced open," possibly by the Metrolink train, she said.

Premature to blame engineer?
The Metrolink train, heading from downtown Los Angeles to Ventura County, was carrying 220 passengers, one engineer and a conductor, and the freight train had a crew of three.

The crash forced the Metrolink engine well back into the first passenger car, and both toppled over. Two other passenger cars remained upright.

The Metrolink engineer was employed by Connex Railroad, a subsidiary of Veolia Transportation, which said it began operating Metrolink routes in 2005. The company issued a brief statement saying it was "fully cooperating" with investigators.

Metrolink's assertion that engineer error caused the accident drew some criticism.

Los Angeles County Supervisor and Metrolink board member Don Knabe said it's premature to blame the engineer.

"There could always be a technical malfunction where ... there was a green light both ways," he said.