Transportation Safety Board holds first day of hearings on Metrolink crash

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Federal investigators say the engineer running the Metrolink train that crashed in Chatsworth last September didn't stop at a red light, failed to call signals properly and was texting on his cell phone. The National Transportation Safety Board began hearings on the crash today in Washington. KPCC's Brian Watt reports.

Brian Watt: Twenty-five people died when the Metrolink train collided with a Union Pacific freight train last September. Metrolink engineer Robert Sanchez was among the dead.

Federal investigators say Sanchez sent or received 95 text messages the day of the crash; about half while on duty. They produced an animated re-enactment of the moments before the collision. Chief investigator Wayne Workman explained how Sanchez texted... and failed to stop at a red stop signal at Topanga.

Wayne Workman (narrating animation): Phone records show that by 4:22:01, the engineer has sent a text message in response to the message he just received. The Metrolink train operates through the track switch at Topanga, which was lined for the Union Pacific train to enter the siding.

Watt: Seconds later, the trains rammed together. The content of text messages sent by Sanchez revealed the engineer let some teenage railroad fans ride in the locomotive cab three days before the accident, and that he was planning to do so again later that day. That violates company and federal rules.

Two years before the crash, Connex, the company that staffs Metrolink trains with engineers, adopted a cell phone ban. Soon after, inspectors caught Sanchez with his cell phone turned on in the cab. It was stowed away, and Sanchez said he'd forgotten to turn it off. Safety board member Kathryn Higgins wasn't satisfied.

Kathryn Higgins: I mean this is one train, one day, one crew. I mean, it raises questions for me about what the heck else is going on out there. And I'm sure it does for you, too.

Watt: She asked Connex General Manager Tom McDonald what the company was doing differently in the aftermath of the crash. McDonald said that managers from the company and Metrolink check train crews more frequently now, with more than a thousand random inspections per month.

Tom McDonald: We get on unannounced; we have the sheriffs out there; there are signal people out there, and we do... you know, and just... unless you're just right there with them... you have 145 trains operating. If you have an employee who is not going to comply with the rules, it's very difficult. But we have stepped up our game.

Watt: And Metrolink is trying to step up its game by installing a technology called positive train control, which uses global positioning systems to help avoid crashes.

On a second day of hearings, the National Transportation Safety Board hears from representatives of transportation unions and the Federal Railroad Administration.