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Federal hearing: Metrolink engineer warned twice about cellphone use

March 3, 2009 | 10:17 am


Supervisors twice warned Metrolink engineer Robert M. Sanchez about improper use of cellphones while in the control cab of trains, according to testimony this morning in Washington.

Sanchez was sending a text message shortly before he ran through a red signal light and crashed into a Union Pacific freight train in Chatsworth on Sept. 12, federal officials said. Sanchez and 24 passengers died and 135 passengers were injured in the worst commuter rail disaster in modern California history.

Rick Dahl, a supervisor with Connex Railroad, which provides train crews to Los Angeles-based Metrolink, said Click to enlarge Sanchez was first warned about violating rail policy in 2006 when inspectors conducting a surprise test found that his cellphone was turned on in a nearby personal gear bag on board the train.

Dahl said he warned Sanchez a second time shortly before the September crash, following a complaint by the conductor working with Sanchez. The conductor had seen the engineer using a cellphone on the job.

Newthumb Under questioning, Dahl said Sanchez was not observed using a phone while the train was operating.

“We never had an operator of a moving train who was caught red handed, sort of speak,” said Connex assistant general manager Greg Konstanzer, who also testified.

In other testimony, federal investigators and Metrolink officials said the track-side signal system was working properly before the accident occurred, and engineer Sanchez had plenty of time to respond to what tests show was a red light directing him to stop and wait for another train to pass.

Connext Railroad LLC employee Rick Dahl gives testimony during the hearing. The status of the signal has been a point of dispute. The Times has reported that four witnesses, including the surviving Metrolink conductor, have said the final signal appeared green.

But National Transportation Safety Board member Kathryn O’Leary Higgins, who is chairing today's board of inquiry on the accident, said that when she stood on the station platform, she couldn’t see the signal, which is a mile up the track. Investigators reported today that the red light could not be seen clearly until the Metrolink train moved 950 feet closer to the signal from the station.

During questioning, Higgins tried to reconcile the differences between the signal tests and the contradictory statements by the witnesses who said the light was green. She noted NTSB investigators showed the signal was red.

“We have a conflict here,” Higgins told the two officials representing Metrolink. “Signals are critical to what happened in this accident.”

She noted that Sanchez left the Chatsworth station, accelerating to a speed that would be consistent with a green light. She repeatedly asked the Metrolink officials to discuss this conflict, but they said it was beyond their expertise and would be better answered by later witnesses.

Metrolink official Howard E. Cox did say that he had never received any complaints from engineers about the signal visibility, adding that he could not see the signal light when he was at the station platform. Metrolink official Dan Guerrero added there was plenty of time for Sanchez to see the signal and stop.

-- Rich Connell and Dan Weikel

Photo: Connex supervisor Rick Dahl provided testimony. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times


Previously on L.A. Now

 Federal hearing: Rail enthusiasts sat at controls of Metrolink train

NTSB takes testimony in deadly Metrolink train crash

Did Metrolink crash engineer allow teens to ride with him?

Metrolink conductor: Warning light was green, not red