- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 4, 2009

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 - “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.

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

Investigators said Mr. Sanchez made four phone calls and sent and received 43 text messages 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.

Mr. 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 & I’m gonna tell u how to do it,” Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Sanchez last May through a group of rail fans. He said he and Mr. 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 Mr. Sanchez was messaging other youths and a colleague as well.

After the crash, two teenage train buffs told KCBS they received a text message from Mr. 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.

Rick Dahl, a representative of Connex Railroad LLC, the contractor that provides engineers who run Metrolink trains, told the panel 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, Mr. Dahl said Mr. 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,” Mr. Dahl said. “The engineer told me he knows the policy and forgot to turn it off when he stowed it away in the morning.”

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