Officials see threat in cellphone use

A top federal safety board member Wednesday urged stronger enforcement of the cellphone ban for on-duty railroad employees to avoid collisions like the one in California that left 25 dead and 130 injured last year.

"We all need to think about those families who lost people in this accident. I don't think any of us want to be back here for another accident," said Kitty Higgins, who chaired a two-day National Transportation Safety Board hearing in Washington. "I think we have to be tougher on some of these things. I also think it is not acceptable to just say, well, we don't think it is enforceable."

Before the Chatsworth collision involving a Metrolink commuter train and a Union Pacific freight train, the Federal Railroad Authority did not have the power to inspect cellphone use. An emergency order was issued in October to stop on-duty railroad workers from using distracting devices in response to the worst rail accident reported in 10 years.

"The Sept. 12 event regrettably propelled this issue to beyond best practices," said Doug Taylor of the FRA. Taylor admitted the ban is difficult to enforce at the federal level. "How do you know they are text messaging? You don't."

Federal investigators released the transcript of text messages sent and received by engineer Robert Sanchez Tuesday as the NTSB hearing opened. The board is not likely to issue a final report for a few months.

The engineer sent and received 43 text messages and made four phone calls the day of the collision, federal records show. Sanchez was killed in the collision.

Text messages indicated that he had allowed a teenager to ride in the cab several days before the crash and that he planned 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," Sanchez wrote in one text message four days before the crash.

Higgins said cellphones have become part of everyday life. "It's everywhere," she said as a cellphone rang during the hearing.

Connex Railroad, the contractor that provides engineers who run Metrolink trains, has a policy against the use of cellphones on duty.

Union officials told the safety panel that a minimum of two employees in the cabs of all passenger, freight and commuter trains could help avoid accidents.

Often an engineer works alone in the locomotive cab while the conductor performs other duties inside the train. That was the case last September when the Metrolink passenger train ended up on the same shared track with the Union Pacific freight train and the two slammed head-on at about 40 mph.

"There are occasions where something's going to happen. A second set of eyes, in our opinion, would go a long way in preventing accidents," said William Walpert of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.

Higgins expressed doubts about the union's recommendation, pointing out that an accident involving another Metrolink train occurred weeks after the deadly crash in September and the implementation of the policy of having a second worker in the cab.

"I can understand from the unions' standpoint why they would like more employees driving these trains, but from a safety standpoint, I think the jury's still out as to whether that's the formula for solving this problem," Higgins said.

Of the 189 train collisions nationwide last year, 86% were caused by "human factors," according to FRA statistics. Taylor attributed an increase in such accidents to a breakdown in employee compliance with rules.

"We can and will learn all the factors that led to this accident and make sure it will never happen again," Higgins said, closing the hearing portion of the investigation.