WASHINGTON – The engineer of a commuter train that crashed and killed 25 people in California last year was planning to let a railroad fan operate the locomotive on the day of the accident, according to documents from federal investigators.
A transcript of the text messages by engineer Robert Sanchez was released Tuesday as the National Transportation Safety Board opened a two-day hearing into the Sept. 12 collision in suburban Chatsworth that also injured at least 130 people. Investigators sketched out the days and minutes leading up to the deadly crash between the Metrolink train and a Union Pacific freight train.
The texts indicate Sanchez had allowed the fan 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," Sanchez wrote in one text.
The documents do not identify the fan, but after the crash two teenage train buffs told KCBS-TV that they received a text message from Sanchez minutes before the crash.
Federal investigators said Sanchez sent and received 57 text messages while on duty that day, including one that he sent 22 seconds before his train slammed head-on into the freight train. Investigators said the large number of text messages was not uncommon for the engineer in the days leading up to the crash. Sanchez died in 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.
Officials said the two trains were traveling at about 40 miles per hour at the time of the crash. Drivers could see the oncoming train for about five seconds before the wreck occurred.
Workman added that allowing unauthorized individuals into the locomotive cab violated both company and federal rules.
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 conducting the hearing 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.
Robert Heldenbrand, the conductor of the Metrolink train, contends the signal light was actually green as the train left the station about a mile from the crash site. However, Workman said the signal in question could not be viewed clearly from the station.
Heldenbrand also told investigators he had warned a supervisor months before the deadly crash about Sanchez's on-duty cell phone use. He said he followed up with the same supervisor two days before the collision and was assured his concern would be addressed.
His contention is the basis of dozens of negligence lawsuits that allege Connex Railroad LLC, the contractor that provides engineers who run Metrolink trains, knew about the cell phone use but did nothing about it.
Rick Dahl, a representative of Connex, told NTSB's Board of Inquiry 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, Dahl said 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," Dahl said. "The engineer told me he knows the policy and forgot to turn it off when he stowed it away in the morning."
Board member Kitty Higgins said she was troubled by records indicating a few problems with the engineer and crew before the accident.
"It raises questions for me about what the heck else was going on out there."
Connex is a subsidiary of Veolia Transportation Inc., a private operator of bus, rail, shuttle and other transportation services throughout North America.
"How far up the Veolia/Connex chain had the complaints gone before the accident? We hope to find out about that, and a number of other things," said attorney Ed Pfiester, who represents 24 people suing the companies.
The crash prompted a federal ban on cell phone use by rail workers and led Congress to pass a new law requiring so-called "positive train control" technology that can stop a train if it's headed for a collision.
Metrolink also pushed for a number of safety measures, including a video camera system to monitor locomotive crews.