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NTSB takes testimony in deadly Metrolink train crash

March 3, 2009 |  5:00 am


Federal investigators this morning are expected to disclose new details on the crucial question of whether track-side signals were working properly last September prior to the deadly Metrolink commuter rail disaster in Chatsworth.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which begins a two-day hearing in Washington, D.C., at 6 a.m. Pacific time, has said that at least three tests show that a critical red light was visible and the signal system was working properly at the time of the catastrophe that killed 25 people and injured 135 others. The video below shows the signal light in question.

The NTSB panel will take sworn testimony from subpoenaed witnesses and is expected to delve more deeply into details of improper cellphone text messaging by Metrolink engineer Robert M. Sanchez, who died in the crash. The agency will stream the hearing over the Internet. If you have trouble receiving it, check this support page.

Here's what to watch for:

Sanchez ran the red signal before ramming head-on into a Union Pacific freight train, according to preliminary findings by the safety board. However, The Times has reported that the agency also was told by at least four witnesses — including the sole surviving Metrolink crew member — that the signal appeared green.

Sanchez sent and received 57 text messages while on duty the day of the crash, including one 22 seconds before impact, investigators have said. The Times reported last week that some messages recovered by the NTSB indicate Sanchez sometimes allowed teenage rail enthusiasts to ride along in his cab, a serious violation of safety rules.

How diligently Metrolink and the firm it hired to provide rail crews, Connex Railroad, enforced a ban on cellphones in locomotive control cabs also is expected to be explored. The surviving Metrolink conductor has told investigators he warned a supervisor prior to the Chatsworth crash that he saw Sanchez using a cellphone in the cab at a station stop. What was done about the complaint has not been disclosed.

The hearing agenda is posted here.

Check back throughout the day as we follow developments and report on newly released investigative documents.

-- Robert J. Lopez and Rich Connell

-- Times video by Robert J. Lopez and Rich Connell