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SF train operator’s actions come under scrutiny

The operator of a light-rail train that crashed and injured dozens in San Francisco came under scrutiny Sunday as investigators tried to figure out why he switched to manual control moments before the collision.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The operator of a light-rail train that crashed and injured dozens of passengers in San Francisco came under scrutiny Sunday as federal investigators tried to figure out why he inexplicably turned off the automatic controls moments before the collision.

National Transportation Safety Board investigator Ted Turpin did not know why the operator switched the controls from automatic to manual in a tunnel near the West Portal Station.

Had he kept the autopilot on, the train would have slowed down before arriving at the station and likely not careened into a parked train while going 23 mph, Turpin said. He added that the operator never engaged the emergency brake.

The crash injured 48 people, four seriously, in the latest in a series of commuter train wrecks in recent months in the U.S. None of the injuries were life-threatening.

Two Los Angeles-based NTSB investigators are working with transit officials to interview passengers, witnesses and focus on assessing the condition of the train tracks, signal systems and the structural integrity of the train cars involved. Also, investigators had not finished looking at whether the signaling system played a role.

A chaotic scene unfolded Saturday after the westbound train rear-ended the other train at a boarding platform. Rescue crews hurried to the scene and removed bloodied passengers, and the operator was pinned inside his damaged compartment, said San Francisco Fire Lt. Ken Smith.

"He was in the front of the train, and part of it was pushed into him," Smith said. "Rescuers had to pry open the doors to get to him and assist him out of the light rail vehicle."

Neither Turpin nor local transit officials would identify the driver, but said he started as a San Francisco bus driver in 1979 and switched to light rail in 2007. He was hospitalized after the crash and a drug test had been administered, which is standard procedure for crashes.

Investigators will also be looking at whether cell phone use played a factor in the crash, as is standard in all train accident investigations, Turpin said.

The crash is the fourth major U.S. subway or commuter rail accident in the last 10 months.

In September, a commuter rail train crashed with a freight rail in Los Angeles and 25 people died. The crash was blamed on an engineer on the commuter rail texting on a cell phone. About 50 people were injured in Boston in May when a trolley rear-ended another trolley. The conductor admitted to texting when the crash took place. And last month, a subway train rear-ended another in Washington during rush hour, killing six people.

The light rail is part of a mass-transit system that carries more than 200 million passengers a year in San Francisco, including on the city's famous street cars and trolleys.