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Investigators: Light was red in 2008 Chatsworth train crash, despite what witnesses said

January 21, 2010 | 10:01 am
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Live webcast: Today's NTSB hearing in Washington, D.C

Federal investigators today expanded on the reasoning behind their  conclusion that a Metrolink engineer who, records show, had been text messaging ran a red light before the deadly 2008 collision in Chatsworth. Eyewitnesses maintained that the signal was green.

While acknowledging that during post-crash sight tests some investigators could make out a green signal from the station, the National Transportation Safety Board staff said other investigators could not see the light color, which is near the distance limits of human perception.

All of the agency's test evidence, analysis of radio communications and dispatch-center records indicated the signal was red, investigators said. Officials noted that the agency had found that witness perceptions could be at odds with scientific evidence, particularly when they had expectations of what would occur.     

And the Metrolink train typically had a green light leaving the Chatsworth station.

Board member Robert L. Sumwalt summed up the findings, saying, "It was likely that those witnesses saw a light but couldn't discern a color and assumed that it was green because it was normally green." In addition, staff experts noted that green lights can be seen from greater distances, and the red light was not visible from the station. 

Board members also noted that though the draft report does not cite fatigue as a factor in the crash, they were concerned about grueling split-shift schedules for engineers at Metrolink and other passenger rail services.

Conductors and engineers work a 10-hour shift over a period of 15 hours, board Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said. "To me, 15-hour days seem too long," she said.

Sumwalt said Sanchez would only get about 4 1/2 hours of uninterrupted sleep each work night. "I do worry about the chronic fatigue here," Sumwalt said.

Hersman touched on the text messaging, which will be discussed in the afternoon session, suggesting that the engineer was likely distracted because he had stopped calling out the color of two track side warning signals prior to the crash.

"This engineer really didn't have his head in the game at the time of collision," she said. "He wasn't on top of it."

-- Robert J. Lopez and Rich Connell

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