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Fatal LA Train Crash Could Have Been Prevented with New Safety System, Feds Say

Sep 16, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

The death toll from last week's Los Angeles commuter train crash has now reached 26, making it the worst U.S. rail accident in the past 15 years.  Now, federal officials have gone on record as saying the tragedy could have been prevented with the installation of new safety technology which most railroads have refused to use.  

The fatal Metrolink train crash occurred around 4:22 on Friday, near Chatsworth, California, at the west end of the San Fernando Valley.  Officials said 220 people were aboard the Metrolink train, which was heading from Union Station in downtown Los Angeles to Ventura County. The commuter train was traveling at 42 mph when it ran head-on into a Union Pacific freight train traveling in the opposite direction.  The impact of the collision rammed the commuter train’s  engine backward, jamming it deep into the first passenger car.  The Associated Press reported that the Metrolink train was so mangled that some bodies had to be removed in pieces.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the engineer at the helm of  the Metrolink train failed to stop at the final red signal, which forced the train onto a track where the Union Pacific freight was traveling.  Three signals that should have warned the engineer to stop before hitting a freight train appear to have been working and visible prior to last week's catastrophic collision, investigators said.

Right now, the NTSB's investigation is focusing on whether or not the engineer - who died in the crash - was text messaging at the time.  Two teenage train buffs who befriended him told an LA TV station  that they received a text message from him a minute before the crash.  The Board has requested cell phone records to investigate whether Metrolink engineer Robert Sanchez might have been distracted by text messaging.

Meanwhile, an NTSB official used the accident as an opportunity to criticize railroads for refusing to install new technology that could have prevented the crash.  The system, known as positive train control, monitors train location and speed using satellite-based positioning systems and digital communication. It can engage the brakes if a train fails to heed signals or gets on the wrong track.  According to the Associated Press, the technology is  in use on only 2,600 miles of track out of about 140,000 miles nationwide. Railroads have resisted it because of cost.

"Many times in this country, we regulate by counting tombstones,"  Barry M. Sweedler, former director of the Office of Safety Recommendations for the NTSB, told the Associated Press. "Unfortunately, it takes a tragedy like this with many people dead for action to take place, even though people in the know knew what needed to be done and didn't do it," he said.

In addition to costs, railroads argue that the technology has not been fully tested.  But the NTSB says the system has been proven in testing and practice.  According to the Associated Press, Massachusetts' commuter rail system is equipped with sensor technology. It was used in March, when a 112-ton parked  freight car came loose and headed toward a commuter rail train carrying 300 passengers during rush hour 3 miles down the track. The technology stopped the commuter train, and though there was a collision, passengers suffered only minor injuries.


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