September 15, 2008

Metrolink Train Crash Accident Probe: Investigation To Examine Text Messages

LOS ANGELES / Chatsworth, California -- Train Collision Kills 26 & Leaves Over 100 Injured.

Traverse Legal personal injury attorneys are investigating a California Metrolink commuter train accident.  Train 111, consisting of an EMD F59PH locomotive (#855) pulling three Bombardier Bi-Level Coaches, departed Union Station in downtown Los Angeles at 15:35 PDT (22:35 UTC) heading westbound to Moorpark. It departed the Chatsworth station with 222 people aboard, and traveled approximately 1.25 miles when it collided head-on with an eastbound Union Pacific local freight train, led by two SD70ACe locomotives, UP 8485 and 8491. The Metrolink locomotive telescoped into the passenger compartment of the first passenger car and caught fire. Three locomotives, the leading Metrolink passenger car and seven freight cars, were derailed. The Metrolink locomotive, first passenger car, and the lead Union Pacific locomotive fell on their sides.

The collision occurred after the Metrolink passenger train's engineer failed to obey a red stop signal that indicated it was not safe to proceed into the single track section. The dispatcher's computer at a remote control center in Pomona did not display a warning prior to the accident according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).  Metrolink reported that the dispatcher tried in vain to contact the train crew to warn them, but the NTSB contradicted this report, saying the dispatcher noticed a problem after the accident.

Both trains were moving toward each other at the time of the collision. At least one passenger on the Metrolink train reported seeing the freight train just moments before impact, coming around the curve. The conductor of the passenger train, who was in the rear car and was injured in the accident, estimated that his train was traveling at 40 miles per hour before it suddenly came to a dead stop after the collision. The NTSB reported that it was travelling at 42 mph. The freight was traveling at approximately the same speed after its engineer triggered the emergency air brake only two seconds before impact, while the Metrolink engineer never applied the brakes on his train.

 The accident occurred after the freight train emerged from the 500-foot-long tunnel #28, just south of the California State Route 118 near the intersection of Heather Lee Lane and Andora Avenue near Chatsworth Hills Academy. The accident was in Chatsworth, a neighborhood of Los Angeles located at the western edge of the San Fernando Valley. The trains collided on the Metrolink Ventura County Line, part of the Montalvo Cutoff, opened by the Southern Pacific Company on March 20, 1904, to improve the alignment of its Coast Line. Metrolink has operated the line since purchasing it in the 1990s from Southern Pacific (now owned by Union Pacific), which retained trackage rights for freight service.

The line's railway signal system is designed to ensure that trains wait on the double track section while a train is proceeding in the other direction on the single track. The signal system was upgraded in the 1990s to support Metrolink commuter rail services. The Metrolink train would normally wait in the Chatsworth station for the daily Union Pacific freight train to pass before proceeding, unless the freight train was already waiting for it at Chatsworth.

Tests of the signal system after the accident showed it was working properly, which focused the investigation on human factors. Before releasing the accident scene and allowing restoration of service, the NTSB conducted a final sight distance test. An identical metrolink train and pair of Union Pacific locomotives were brought together at the point of impact and slowly backed away from each other. The test showed that the trains' engineers could not see each other until less than five seconds before the collision.

The NTSB also stated that a railroad switch showed evidence of damage consistent with the Metrolink passenger train "running through" the trailing switch points while they were set to allow the freight train to proceed onto the adjacent track, forcing them open, saying: "The switch bars were bent like a banana. It should be perfectly straight." The Board member in charge of the NTSB team said they were also concerned with possible fatigue issues related to the engineer's split shift work schedule The engineer worked an 11.5 hour shift split with a 3.5 hour break, leaving only 9 hours away from work between workdays.

Lawsuti by crash victims are already being filed for personal injury and death alleging that the failure to implement a Positive Train Control system - PTC - which they say would have averted the disaster. The train accident will be the first legal test of a provision in the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act of 1997 (P.L. 105-134), which places a US$200 million cap on the aggregate of all passengers' damage, injury and death claims in a railroad accidents.

Twenty-four bodies were recovered from the scene, and two victims who had been pulled out alive died at nearby hospital in the following days. The death toll may rise because many victims remained in critical condition. A total of 134 others were reported injured, 47 of them critically. Approximately 100 people were taken to hospitals, with 40 of them medevaced by air ambulance helicopters.

Christopher  Aiken, 38 Dennis Arnold, 75 Dean Brower, 51 Alan Buckley, 59
Yi Chao, 71 Spree Desha, 35 Walter Fuller, 54 Ronald Grace, 55
Michael Hammersley, 45   Jacob Hefter, 18 Ernest Kish, 47 Gregory Lintner, 48
Paul Long, 54 Manuel Macias, Jr., 31 Aida Magdaleno, 19

Charles Peck, 49 Howard  Pompel, 69 Donna Remata, 49 Atul Vyas, 20
Robert Sanchez, 46 Doyle Souser, 56 Roger Spacey, 60  Maria Villalobos, 18

» Christopher  Aiken, 38, Thousand Oaks

» Dennis Arnold, 75, Camarillo

» Dean Brower, 51, Ventura

» Alan Buckley, 59, Simi Valley

» Yi Chao, 71, Simi Valley

» Spree Desha, 35, Simi Valley

» Walter Fuller, 54, Simi Valley

» Ronald Grace, 55, Simi Valley

» Michael Hammersley, 45, Simi Valley

» Jacob Hefter, 18, Palmdale

» Kari  Hsieh

» Ernest Kish, 47, Thousand Oaks

» Gregory Lintner, 48, Simi Valley

» Paul Long, 54, Moorpark

» Manuel Macias, Jr., 31, Santa Paula

» Aida Magdaleno, 19, Camarillo

» Beverly  Mosely, 57, Moorpark

» Charles Peck, 49, Salt Lake City

» Howard  Pompel, 69, Moorpark

» Donna Remata, 49, Simi Valley

» Robert Sanchez, 46, La Crescenta

» Doyle Souser, 56, Camarillo

» Roger Spacey, 60, Simi Valley

» Maria Villalobos, 18, Moorpark

» Atul Vyas, 20, Simi Valley

Kitty Higgins of the National Transportation Safety Board said investigators have been in touch with two teenagers who told a local television station that they had been exchanging text messages with the Metrolink train engineer before the crash. This could be important information as the investigation continues.

A day earlier, Metrolink spokeswoman Denise Tyrrell said the train crash resulted from "human error.""We believe that it was our engineer that failed to stop at a signal." Tyrrell resigned on Monday after Metrolink's board called her announcement "premature," even though the NTSB later supported her statement.   Metrolink now denies responsibility pending completion of the investigaiton.

Just like regular vehicles, trains are subject to signal systems, Tyrrell said before her resignation. "They receive a signal to stop, and they must hold their location until other traffic has passed."

Sometimes, trains are moved to a siding area to wait, she said. But a review of "a number of programs," including the signal system itself, showed the engineer failed to heed that signal, Tyrrell said.

Our train accident attorneys have identified additional Metrolink train accident resources:


The National Transportation Safety Board says they've found evidence of missed safety checks, but it'll be months before they determine the cause. The NTSB also reported that audio recordings on the train are missing required verbal safety checks between the Sanchez and the conductor in the seconds before the crash.

Higgins said the recordings show the two called out and confirmed light signals along the route, but the tapes are missing calls for the last two lights the train passed.

The pictures inside the cab window of the Metrolink engine on the engineers side in the LA Times establish that the train was in an emergency stop. Thus, the engineer could not have been suffering from a medical problem which precluded him from operating or stopping the train.

The accident took place on tracks that are owned, maintained and controlled (i.e. dispatched) by Metrolink.

What about the fact that the dispatcher is supposed to know where oncoming train are. The engineer was not required to know where the freight was or where the two trains would come together. The Metrolink dispatcher's job is know this. The Metrolink engineer must observe and comply with signals. Nothing more, nothing less. it appears the engineer may not have complied with the signals. We will need to see what responsibility, if any, the Metrolink dispatcher has in this train crash.

Investigators have not yet interviewed the four surviving crew members from the trains because of their injuries. When they are interviewed, we may find out more.

According to general rules at NJT, no eletronic devices are to be used while on duty unless it pertains to out jobs such as radios. All engineers are to keep their cell phones off while running. I think the rule has some merit by eliminating the temptations of cell phones which in return could result in death. I personally have examined my own behavior at work since this crash and will make changes. It only takes a second to make a fatal mistake.

54-year-old Paul Long, of Moorpark, in Ventura County was just a few minutes away from his stop when the Chatsworth train accident occurred. He was traveling with his wife and 16-year-old son, Devin. Long taught English at Oaks Christian College, and was an active member of the church. Devin remembers coming to after the train accident and seeing his mother trying in vain to wake his father up.

Manuel Acosta Macias, a 31-year-old former Marine taught yoga to the visually impaired and other physically challenged people. He was an accidental passenger on board the ill-fated Metrolink train – he had missed his usual train, and had to catch this train instead. Macias has his weekend full – he was scheduled to take a group of senior citizens out to Santa Barbara. It wasn’t to be.

20-year-old Atul Vyas was a brilliant student, and had been in the process of filling out application forms to medical school at Harvard and Duke. His parents described him as a “thoroughly brilliant kid.”

19-year-old Aida Magdaleno was the only one of her family to be born in Mexico, but was more American than the rest of them. The daughter of orchard workers, she was a sociology major who had big plans to give back to the country that gave her so much.

These were just a few names of the 25 who left behind loved ones. Our deepest sympathies to the families of those who lost a family member in the Los Angeles Metrolink train crash.

As an attorney who litigates accident cases all the time, I can tell you that cell phones are a major reason for injuries and death. I understand that Metrolink says it had a policy against cell phone usage. The real question for lawyers who will litigate these cases, assuming there was cell phone usage which caused the train accident, is how strictly the policy was enforced, how well the engineers were trained and whether management 'looked the other way.'

Was the Metrolink engineer texting when he should have been stopping at the signal?

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