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Federal hearing: Rail enthusiasts sat at controls of Metrolink train

March 3, 2009 |  7:05 am

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The engineer suspected of causing the Sept. 12 Metrolink catastrophe in Chatsworth not only allowed rail enthusiasts into the cab of moving trains but also let them sit at the controls, according to text messages released today at a hearing by federal investigators.

Two days before the crash, Metrolink engineer Robert M. Sanchez sent a cellphone text message arranging another ride-along and said, "this time I'm taking a picture of you @ da throttle!!!"

Planning for the evening ride-along on the day of the crash, Sanchez texted one of the rail enthusiasts: "yea...but I’m REALLY looking forward to getting you in the cab and showing you how to run a locomotive."

The recipient, identified as "Person A," responded: "Omg [oh, my God] dude me too. Running a locomotive. Having all of that in the palms of my hands. Its a great feeling. And ill do it so good from all my practice on the simulator.”

Sanchez answered: "I’m gonna do all the radio talkin’...ur gonna run the locomotive & I’m gonna tell u how to do it."

The Times reported last week that the messages indicated Sanchez allowed teens to ride in Metrolink cabs, a serious violations of safety rules. Though it does not appear Sanchez had riders in the cab the day Metrolink commuter train 111 crashed into a Union Pacific freight train sharing the same track, he made plans to meet up and allow the rail buffs on board to operate a train later that evening, the records show. Officials with the National Transportation Safety Board said today the ride-along violated federal and local regulations. 

The new details emerged from the NTSB, which opened a two-day Washington hearing on the collision that killed 25 and injured 135.

Sanchez also sent and received dozens of text messages while on duty the day of the crash, including one shortly before the two trains collided, federal investigators said. Some of those messages reportedly involved young train fans in the Chatsworth area. 

About the time of his last text message, Sanchez sailed through a red warning light, according to Wayne Workman, the NTSB investigator in charge. Workman said tests showed the signal was visible as Sanchez approached it and it was working properly. But four witnesses, including the Metrolink conductor who survived, have said the final light appeared green.

Connex Railroad, which employed Sanchez and has a contract to provide Metrolink train crews, issued  a statement saying the engineer’s actions of allowing teenage rail enthusiasts to ride and control trains were "repugnant" and "contrary to the most fundamental rules of rail operation."

"This rogue behavior was uncharacteristic of the Robert Sanchez known to his co-workers, supervisors, friends and neighbors as a dedicated career railroad engineer" with various railroads, the statement said.

-- Robert J. Lopez and Rich Connell 

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