NTSB places Metrolink Chatsworth crash blame on texting engineer

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Kitty Felde/KPCC

The "Control Point Topanga" signal indicating a red light, which the engineer missed

The National Transportation Safety Board's final report on the Metrolink train crash in Chatsworth blames an engineer sending text messages for the deadliest crash in the commuter rail line's 18-year history.

KPCC's Kitty Felde covered the hearing in Washington, D.C. KPCC's Molly Peterson spoke with Metrolink officials in Los Angeles.

NTSB investigators determined the weather in the San Fernando Valley was clear on September 12, 2008. Equipment on the Metrolink locomotive and on the tracks was working properly.

But they also concluded that veteran engineer Robert Sanchez was distracted by texting and failed to see a red signal after his locomotive pulled away from Chatsworth Station. His northbound train smashed into a southbound Union Pacific freight train minutes later. Sanchez died in the crash.

In all, 25 people were killed, including one passenger who’d been in Metrolink’s Glendale crash in 2005. Another 135 people were injured.

NTSB chair Deborah Hersman says Sanchez texted constantly while on the job.

“There was a violation of company policy and it was flagrant, it was consistent and it was longstanding,” said Hersman. “It was not a ‘one-off’ event. This operator sent and received upwards of 95 text messages that day.”

Metrolink officials have reviewed the tape: they say security cameras trained on train engineers have deterred them from texting while on the job in the year since the Chatsworth crash.

Hersman said the passengers on the train entrusted their lives to Metrolink.

“Many people were riding a train on that Friday night,” said Hersman. “They were riding home from work, and they counted on that railroad engineer to get them where they were going and get them there safely. Tragically, an instant message turned an ordinary commute into a catastrophe.”

The NTSB crash report says phone records show Sanchez sent more texts on the job than on weekends. That wasn’t his only violation of company policy. Sanchez invited friends into the cab, and even told them where to hide in case inspectors came on board. He’d been reprimanded for various problems nearly half a dozen times.

Sanchez operated trains for Metrolink, but his employer was Connex, hired by Metrolink to manage trains crews. Connex has since been taken over by the transportation company Veolia.

Hersman said Metrolink management shares some blame for failing to do more about Sanchez and his texting habits.

“Management cannot turn a blind eye to the behavior of ‘bad actors’ that are not doing their job,” said Hersman. “They are accountable for the performance of their employees.”

Metrolink chairman Keith Millhouse, who spoke with reporters in Los Angeles after the NTSB hearing concluded, said the commuter rail didn’t know Sanchez was breaking the rules over and over again or that Connex kept him on the job.

“We were just shocked,” said Millhouse. “There’s a certain amount of professionalism you expect from a company that touts itself as a transportation leader such as Connex. So we’ve found that you can’t trust your contractor to do what they’re doing.”

That lack of trust led Metrolink to bring in its old contractor – Amtrak - to replace Connex-Veolia as the company in charge of hiring and managing trains crews. Amtrak takes over in June. The NTSB also recommended installing video and audio recorders inside of train cabs to keep an eye on engineers, something Metrolink has already done.

The NTSB dismissed accounts of four eyewitnesses who said the red signal light at Chatsworth was actually green. Dr. Loren Groff conducted a visual study of the signals and where the witnesses said they were standing. He told the NTSB that witnesses could not have reliably seen a green signal from the Chatsworth station. They were too far from the signal to discern the color in the evening light.

Three of the witnesses who saw green lights were friends of the engineer; the fourth was a conductor who said the light was green on that stretch of track 99 percent of the time. NTSB Managing Director David Mayer says it’s not unusual for eyewitnesses to think they saw something that wasn’t there.

“The experiences of eyewitnesses being inconsistent with other more objective physical evidence is something we have a long history with here,” said Mayer.

In its final report, the NTSB also repeated a call to adopt the automated crash prevention system known as “positive train control.” Hersman says the NTSB has been pushing railroads to install “positive train control” systems for nearly 30 years.

“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,” said Hersman.

Metrolink managers say they’ve set a goal of installing “positive train control” throughout its system by 2013. The cost is $200 million. But only half the money is in place, and Metrolink hasn’t yet hired a vendor to manage the project.

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