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Wednesday, October 01, 2008

California Train Operators Banned From Texting

Operator in Recent Deadly Crash Was Texting While Controlling Train

California's railroad regulators have temporarily prohibited the use of all cellular devices by anyone controlling a moving train after federal investigators said an engineer in last week's deadly train collision outside Los Angeles had been text messaging while operating the train.

The five-person California Public Utilities Commission unanimously passed the emergency order, which pointed out the lack of federal or state rules regarding the use of messaging devices by on-duty train personnel.

In a statement, Michael R. Peevey, the president of the commission that oversees rail traffic in the state, said that the ban on cellular use was "necessary and reasonable."

The commission’s order was prompted by an announcement from the National Transportation Safety Board, whose investigators determined from phone records that the engineer, Robert M. Sanchez, sent and received text messages while controlling the Metrolink commuter train that collided head-on with a Union Pacific freight train on Sept. 12.

Mr. Sanchez’s train was carrying about 225 passengers when it ran a red light near downtown Los Angeles. In the worst domestic train accident since 1993, twenty-five people were killed and more than 130 injured. Mr. Sanchez did not brake before the collision and was killed in the crash.

The National Transportation Safety Board investigators stopped short of saying that the distraction of text messaging might have been a cause because the timing of the messages Mr. Sanchez sent and received was still being determined.

"We’re trying to coordinate the times," said Peter Knudson, a board spokesman. The board is investigating reports that Mr. Sanchez was text messaging with a teenage train aficionado when the accident occurred.

According to Mr. Knudson, the teenager had said that he received a message at 4:22 p.m. However, Mr. Knudson cautioned, "We don’t know if his 4:22 is the same as the train’s 4:22."

This time discrepancy is a problem investigators at the board commonly face. In plane crashes, for example, they must match the time-stamped events on a flight data recorder or a cockpit voice recorder with the clock on a radar record or the time as recorded in tapes of air-to-ground communications.

Investigators noted that the synchronizing of cell phone data is less common. And there is sometimes a lag of several minutes in the sending of text messages from cell phones.

Kathryn O. Higgins, the board member at the scene, said that the investigators are to create a timeline of the accident, using data from various sources, including the time recorded on the event data recorders of the trains.

Although the railroad already bans texting while the operator is running the train, Ms. Higgins noted that Mr. Sanchez had sent and received many text messages over the course of his shift. But Mr. Sanchez’s shift contained long periods when he was not operating the train. Ms. Higgins said, "During off time, down time, personal time, it's not prohibited then."

The commission’s rule applies to all train personnel working with locomotion, including engineers, brakemen and conductors, but does not cover periods when the train is not moving or when text messaging is approved by management. The panel is considering making the emergency order permanent.

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