12:22 PM PDT, September 16, 2008
Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board were doing a "site distance survey" to know at what point the engineers on the Metrolink and Union Pacific lines first saw each other prior to Friday’s devastating head-on collision that killed 25 passengers in Chatsworth, said NTSB spokesman Terry Williams.
Investigators were conducting a second simulation, in which a Metrolink train would exit the Chatsworth station and drive past several warning signals, to help determine whether the lights were visible from the engineer’s point of view, Williams said.
The tests will help answer a key question: How well was the Metrolink engineer able to see the lights before the crash?
Higgins told reporters Monday night that a warning signal just past the Chatsworth Metrolink station was red, which meant the engineer had to stop the train to allow the southbound Union Pacific line to move off the main track and onto a siding to let the other train pass.
Instead, the Metrolink engineer ran the red light and raced up the main track at 42 mph.
As the investigation continued, public officials worked to prevent such catastrophic crashes from occurring again through tougher train safety laws.
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced legislation today to speed the installation of technology to prevent crashes on tracks used by both freight and passenger trains.
Feinstein and fellow California Democrat Sen. Barbara Boxer, who cosponsored the bill, hope to pass the legislation before Congress recesses at the end of next week.
The legislation would force railroad companies to install "positive train control" technology that brakes a train if the engineer misses a signal or gets off-track, a Feinstein spokesman said. The technology would be required in high-risk areas where freight and passenger service mix by 2012 and in all other areas by 2014, said Feinstein spokesman Scott Gerber.
Both the House and Senate have passed similar legislation, but Feinstein’s bill would take effect sooner and impose stiffer penalties, including $100,000 fines, for companies who fail to comply, Gerber said.
Los Angeles City Councilman Eric Garcetti plans to introduce a resolution at today’s council meeting supporting national legislation that would require train safety technology before 2018, according to Garcetti spokeswoman Julie Wong.
Officials said Monday that three signals that should have warned a Metrolink engineer to stop before hitting a freight train appear to have been working and visible prior to Friday’s catastrophic collision.
"There were no obstructions to viewing any of the signals," NTSB member Kitty Higgins said as she summed up the early stages of what promises to be a lengthy investigation.
Higgins said the Metrolink train ran through a red signal instead of stopping to allow the southbound Union Pacific freight train to pull onto a siding. It then crossed a switching mechanism on the main track at 42 mph, so fast that it bent a switch, which had been closed to guide the freight train onto the siding.
Higgins said the safety board had subpoenaed cellphone records from Verizon Wireless to determine whether the engineer of the commuter train had been text-messaging in the moments leading to the head-on collision.
Metrolink’s chief spokeswoman, Denise Tyrrell, resigned Monday after she was intensely criticized by superiors who said she had spoken prematurely in attributing the crash to the Metrolink engineer’s mistake.
The coroner’s office identified the engineer as Robert Martin Sanchez, 46, of La Crescenta, who was described by neighbors as a man who cherished his privacy but spoke lovingly about trains.
"My brother loved trains all his life," he said. "He died doing what he loved. You don’t have any idea what we’re feeling right now. We feel awful for the victims. I’m thinking about my little brother."
Metrolink trains resumed service Monday between Union Station in downtown Los Angeles and the Chatsworth station, just south of the crash site. Beyond that, Metrolink operated bus service to and from the Moorpark and Simi Valley stations.
In the first regulatory response to the accident, the head of California’s rail safety agency proposed an emergency ban on the use of personal cellular devices by those operating trains in the state. Although some rail lines may have policies prohibiting the private use of wireless devices by train personnel, "they’re widely ignored," said Michael R. Peevey, president of the state Public Utilities Commission.
Utilities commission spokeswoman Susan Carothers said Peevey’s proposal, to be voted on Thursday, was a "precautionary measure" and not a signal that cellphone use by the engineer contributed to the disaster. "We’ve not made any conclusion regarding the cause," she said.
"These safety measures are especially important in Southern California, which has a very high number of commuter trains that share tracks with freight trains," he said.
U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer suggested that Congress review legislation requiring installation of automated control systems by Dec. 31, 2018.
"In light of this tragic accident, I believe Congress should move up this timetable and consider additional rail safety measures," she wrote in a letter to the leaders of the Senate Commerce Committee.
In the first legal action instigated by the crash, the parents of a 19-year-old Cal State Northridge sophomore filed a claim Monday alleging the rail system was negligent in having failed to use available safety systems that might have prevented the collision. Aida Magdaleno, the daughter of farmworkers who was the first in her family to go to college and aspired to become a social worker, was among the 25 killed.
No damages were specified in the claim, which under California law must precede the filing of a lawsuit.
The deadliest train crash in Metrolink’s short history promises also to be the costliest and is likely to test the legality of a $200-million cap Congress imposed on a railroad’s liability for any single accident.
Lawyers who represent victims alleging negligence by railroads warn that the number of victims from Friday’s crash heralds a level of potential damage claims that could easily exhaust that figure, if typical awards for wrongful death and catastrophic injury are granted. In that event, a constitutional challenge to the cap would be likely.