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NTSB: Engineer didn't hit brakes before crash

(The following story by Randal C. Archibold appeared on the New York Times website on September 16.)

LOS ANGELES — The engineer of a commuter train that slammed into a freight train on Friday here, killing 25 people, never applied the brakes even after he bypassed a red signal and closed in on certain disaster, a federal investigator said Tuesday.

The engineer on the freight train, a 17-car Union Pacific train, did slam on his brakes, said Kitty Higgins, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the accident. But just four seconds passed from the time that engineer saw the approaching three-car Metrolink commuter train until the collision, the worst rail disaster in the country in 15 years.

There was, she said, “almost no time to react.”

Ms. Higgins spoke as investigators used Metrolink and Union Pacific trains to re-enact the final moments before the crash, which also left more than 130 people injured and revived calls for widespread use of automated collision-avoidance systems.

The re-enactment on Tuesday sought to determine when the engineers could have seen each other’s trains and the signaling equipment.

The cause of the crash has not been determined, but investigators have said the Metrolink engineer, Robert M. Sanchez, bypassed a red signal as his train traveled at 42 miles per hour and barreled into the freight train, which was going 41 m.p.h.

The question remains why Mr. Sanchez, who was killed in the crash, did not stop his train before the signal, which was meant to allow the freight train to move off the main line and onto a side track so the commuter train could pass. Ms. Higgins said that testing so far had shown no problems with the signaling equipment.

Investigators are awaiting results of Mr. Sanchez’s autopsy and will explore his health as well as a report that he was text-messaging with a group of teenage rail buffs in the minutes before the crash.

In addition, Ms. Higgins said at a news conference on Tuesday night, investigators will seek to determine what role if any Mr. Sanchez’s work schedule on Friday played. He worked a split shift, she said, starting at nearly 6 a.m., going off at 9:26, and then resuming work at 2 p.m. with a scheduled 9 p.m. quitting time.

The conductor, who was interviewed by investigators on Tuesday, said Mr. Sanchez had told him he took a two-hour nap during his off time, but Ms. Higgins said the board was generally wary of split shifts for engineers because they can cause fatigue.

“Split schedules are something of great concern to us, but whether it played a role is much too early to say,” she said.

The conductor, who had worked with Mr. Sanchez since April, said he was not aware of any medical problems Mr. Sanchez might have had and reported no problems working with him.

The accident brought new calls on Tuesday to expand greatly the use of “positive train control,” collision-avoidance systems using satellites, transponders and other technology to automatically stop a train headed for a crash. Such systems are in use on a small fraction of the nation’s rail lines, mainly on high-speed segments of the Amtrak Washington-to-Boston run, and are being tested in several other states.

California’s two senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, introduced legislation on Tuesday that would require high-risk lines to have collision-avoidance systems in place by 2012 and all major lines by 2014.

The National Transportation Safety Board has lobbied for years for these systems and has accused the industry of foot-dragging over the cost, which could exceed $2 billion to put on major lines nationwide.

Ms. Higgins said such a system would have prevented Friday’s crash. Patti Reilly, a spokeswoman for the Association of American Railroads, said that the industry had spent $200 million developing the systems but that challenges included ensuring compatibility among different railroad companies and accounting for varying weight and length of trains.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

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