Engineer invited teen to operate locomotive

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WASHINGTON (AP) ‘mdash; The engineer of a commuter train that crashed and killed 25 people in California last year planned to let a teenage railroad fan operate the locomotive on the night of the collision, text messaging days earlier ‘mdash; ‘I’m gonna do all the radio talkin’ … ur gonna run the locomotive.’

Federal investigators on Tuesday released the transcript of text messages sent and received by engineer Robert Sanchez as the National Transportation Safety Board opened a two-day hearing into the Sept. 12 collision in the Los Angeles suburb of Chatsworth. The crash also injured at least 130 people.

Investigators sketched out the days and minutes leading up to the crash between the Metrolink train and a Union Pacific freight train that ended up on the same shared track and slammed head-on at 40 mph. Drivers could see the oncoming train for about five seconds before the collision.

Investigators described a rash of safety violations, from a stop light that went unheeded to cell phone use and furious text messaging ‘mdash; actions that could have caused the collision. The NTSB’s investigation is expected to continue for several months.

Investigators said Sanchez sent and received 43 text messages and made four phone calls while on duty that day, including one that he sent 22 seconds before the collision. They said the large number of text messages was not uncommon for the engineer in the days leading up to the crash.

Sanchez was killed in the collision.

The texts indicated he had allowed the teenager to ride in the cab several days before the crash, and that he was planning to let him run the train between four stations on the evening of the crash.

‘I’m gonna do all the radio talkin’ … ur gonna run the locomotive ‘amp; I’m gonna tell u how to do it,’ Sanchez wrote in one text four days before the crash.

In an interview with investigators, the unidentified teen acknowledged being in the locomotive cab within a week before the collision but said the train was out of service and Sanchez did not allow him to approach the controls.

The text messages, however, indicate the teen did touch the controls.

‘Touching the controls … i was frothing at the mouth,’ he wrote in one text message.

He also told investigators he met Sanchez last May through a group of rail fans. He said he and Sanchez communicated by phone and text messages once or twice a week, mostly about train operations.

But the transcripts show they called each other and exchanged dozens of texts in the days before the crash. The cell phone records show Sanchez was messaging other youths and a colleague as well.

After the crash, two teenage train buffs told KCBS-TV they received a text message from Sanchez minutes before the crash.

Investigators said there was no sign of mechanical error involving the Metrolink train that was carrying 220 passengers.

‘All the evidence is consistent with the Metrolink engineer failing to stop at a red signal,’ investigator Wayne Workman told the NTSB’s Board of Inquiry.

Investigators also found that the conductor of the Union Pacific train received and sent numerous text messages while on duty. The conductor tested positive for marijuana, but he was not driving the train at the time of the crash.

The NTSB panel focused on cell phone use by train crew members; the operation of trackside signals designed to prevent collisions; and oversight and compliance with safety procedures during the crash.

Robert Heldenbrand, the conductor of the Metrolink train, contends the signal light was actually green as the train left the station about a mile from the crash site. However, Workman said the signal in question could not be viewed clearly from the station.

Officials with Connex Railroad LLC, the contractor that provides engineers who run Metrolink trains, said it was possible to see a green light from the station, but the train had to move farther up the track to see whether it was red. They took exception to the assurance the light was red. They also said the speed of the train indicated that the engineer was under the impression he would not have to stop.

Heldenbrand also told investigators he had warned a supervisor months before the deadly crash about Sanchez’s on-duty cell phone use. He said he followed up with the same supervisor two days before the collision and was assured his concern would be addressed.

His contention is the basis of dozens of negligence lawsuits that allege Connex knew about the cell phone use but did nothing about it.

Rick Dahl, a representative of Connex, told NTSB’s Board of Inquiry that the company had a strict policy against use of cell phones. When that policy went into effect in September 2006, officials stopped and boarded trains to check their employees’ cell phone use. In one instance, Dahl said Sanchez’s cell phone rang as he was interviewing him.

‘I told the engineer he was in violation of our policy and that I was going to take an exception to that,’ Dahl said. ‘The engineer told me he knows the policy and forgot to turn it off when he stowed it away in the morning.’

Board member Kitty Higgins said she was troubled by records indicating a few problems with the engineer and crew before the accident.

‘It raises questions for me about what the heck else was going on out there,’ she said.

Company officials said if employees are intent on getting around the rules, ‘there’s not a lot we can do.’

‘If you have an employee that’s not going to comply with the rules, it’s very difficult. But we have stepped up our game,’ said Tom McDonald of Connex.