- The Washington Times - Friday, September 19, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) | California regulators have issued a temporary ordering banning train operators from using cell phones while on duty.

The California Public Utilities Commission unanimously passed an emergency order Thursday to ban the use of cell phones and other personal electronic devices while operating a train. It comes less than a week after a Southern California commuter train ran head-on into a freight train, killing 25 people and injuring more than 130 others.

Federal authorities confirmed that on the day of the crash, the Metrolink train engineer was text messaging on his cell phone while on duty. Authorities said he ran a red light and slammed into the freight train in Chatsworth on Sept. 12.

Commission President Michael R. Peevey, who sought the order, said some railroads have such policies but they are widely ignored.

“Our order would make it the law and we’ll go after violators,” Mr. Peevey said earlier in the week.

Southern California’s Metrolink prohibits rail workers from using cell phones on the job, but there is no current federal or state regulation regarding the use of cell phones by railroad employees.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) requested the cell phone records of Metrolink engineer Robert Sanchez after two teenage train fans said they had exchanged text messages with him shortly before the train collided Sept. 12 with a Union Pacific freight train in suburban Chatsworth.

Mr. Sanchez was among the victims who died in the crash.

In a statement issued Wednesday night, the NTSB did not say how many messages were found in the records or whether any texting occurred just before the collision.

However, the teens told KCBS-TV last week they received a text message from the engineer at 4:22 p.m. - a minute before the collision.

Messages left with NTSB spokesman Terry Williams were not returned. Metrolink spokesman Francisco Oaxaca declined to comment.

In 2003, the NTSB recommended that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) regulate the use of cell phones after finding that a coal train engineer’s phone use contributed to a May 2002 accident in which two freight trains collided near Clarendon, Texas. The coal train engineer was killed and the conductor and engineer of the other train were critically injured.

Members of the FRA’s railroad safety advisory committee have been considering restricting electronic device usage in the locomotive cab as it develops new safety rules, a spokesman said. The group discussed the matter in meetings earlier in the year and plans to meet next week in Chicago.

The NTSB has determined Mr. Sanchez did not apply the brakes before the collision and ran a red light that could have prevented it. The agency said the tracks and signals were working properly and that human error was to blame.

Meanwhile, fire officials released a few recordings Wednesday night of 911 calls made after the crash. Hundreds of callers described a chaotic scene.

Also Wednesday, Metrolink voted at an emergency meeting to create a Victims Assistance Fund for public and private donations to families of crash victims, and a $200,000 Temporary Assistance Fund to speed payment of costs for the families including funeral expenses.

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