Federal panel takes up Metrolink commuter train wreck

The "Control Point Topanga" signal indicating a red light, which the engineer missed
Kitty Felde/KPCC

Federal safety officials expressed regret Thursday that it took a deadly train crash to push the nation to adopt technology that can stop passenger trains on course for a collision or derailment.

The National Transportation Board met to wrap up its 16-month investigation into the crash in a Los Angeles suburb that killed 25 people and injured more than 100.

"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 NTSB's chairman, Deborah Hersman."

The board is expected to make more safety recommendations and issue a probable cause for the accident when the hearing concludes. Hersman indicated early in the hearing that the focus will be on the engineer's text messaging while on duty.

The engineer, Robert Sanchez, died in the crash. The last of his text messages went out 22 seconds before impact. In all, investigators said he sent and received 43 text messages and made four phone calls while on duty that day.

"Tragically, an instant message turned an ordinary commute into a catastrophe," Hersman said.

Investigators also placed the blame on the commuter train's failure to stop at a red signal. The crash, which occurred on Sept. 12, 2008, in Chatsworth, Calif., involved a Metrolink commuter train traveling along a track reserved for a Union Pacific freight train.

The trains collided head-on. Each was traveling faster than 40 mph.

"All recorded data and physical evidence in this accident are consistent with the Metrolink train failing to stop at the red signal at Topanga and continuing along the main track reserved for the Union Pacific train," said Wayne Workman, the NTSB's chief investigator for the accident.

Federal investigators previously announced they had found several other safety violations relating to the accident, including the engineer's text messages.

The crash prompted action on several fronts. Federal regulators banned cell phone use by train operators, and Congress passed legislation requiring rail companies to install computer systems that can stop trains that are on a collision course or in danger of derailing because of excessive speed. The systems must be in place by the end of 2015. The local commuter rail agency, Metrolink, is also using video cameras in its trains to record activities inside the locomotive cab.

Metrolink operates a 512-mile network in Southern California. It contracts with Connex Railroad for the personnel who operate and supervise the service.

© 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.