New rail rules would prohibit cellphone use by all rail crew

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Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

Workers remove the remains of a Metrolink commuter train on September 14, 2008 in Chatsworth, California. The Metrolink commuter train was involved in a head-on collision with a freight train on September 12. 24 people were killed in the crash and a 25th has died in a hospital. 95 were critically or seriously injured. Metrolink is putting the blame on a Metrolink engineer who was killed in the crash for not stopping for a red light so the freight train could pass on a parallel track. It is the worst rail disaster in Metrolink history and worst in the US in 15 years.

The federal transportation secretary wants to expand a cellphone ban beyond engineers to the entire crews that run commuter trains. The proposal is one consequence of the fatal Metrolink crash in Chatsworth two years ago.

Less than a month after a Metrolink train plowed into a Union Pacific freight train, the federal Department of Transportation issued emergency orders prohibiting rail operators from using electronic devices on the job. Now the department wants to extend the ban to conductors, switchmen, and other crew members.

National Transportation Safety Board Chair Deborah Hersman says Metrolink engineer Robert Sanchez missed a red light because he was a distracted driver.

"This operator sent and received upwards of 95 text messages that day," Hersman said.

But a ban may not, by itself, be enough. The company that ran Metrolink trains had already prohibited cellphone use, and had reprimanded engineer Sanchez. He and 24 other people died, and 135 passengers and crew were injured in the Chatsworth commuter rail crash.

The Department of Transportation will field public comment on its rule change before it goes into effect.

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