Feds hope conductor can shed light on crash

LOS ANGELES - September 15, 2008 Federal and local investigators had no definitive answer as to why a commuter train carrying 220 people rolled past stop signals Friday and barreled head-on into a Union Pacific train in Chatsworth. The accident, the nation's deadliest rail disaster in 15 years, left train cars so mangled that some bodies had to be removed in pieces.

Commuter trains were set to travel Monday morning between downtown Los Angeles and the Chatsworth section of the city, with closures or bus service from stations farther out on the Ventura County line.

"Our staff is looking to do what we can to help the families of the passengers affected by this tragedy," Metrolink spokesman Steve Lantz said. "We hope never to have this happen again. We hope people will have their confidence returned to ride with us."

National Transportation Safety Board member Kitty Higgins said Sunday night that audio recordings from the commuter train indicate a period of silence as it passed the last two signals before the fiery wreck, a time when the engineer and the conductor should have been peforming verbal safety checks.

She cautioned, however, that the train may have entered a dead zone where the recording was interrupted.

Higgins said the NTSB would measure the distance between the signals along the track on Monday. Investigators also want to interview the conductor, who was injured, about the recording, she said.

"He'll be able to tell us whether he recalls the engineer calling out and him confirming those signals," Higgins said.

NTSB Investigators also determined Sunday that the train failed to stop at the final red signal, which forced the train onto a track where the Union Pacific freight was traveling in the opposite direction, Higgins said at a news conference. The announcement confirmed earlier statements by Metrolink spokeswoman Denise Tyrrell, who said Saturday that the engineer ran the red signal and caused the accident.

Higgins said the commuter train was traveling 42 mph at the time of the crash.

NTSB experts are also planning to review the cell phone records of two 14-year-old boys and the engineer, who died in the crash, after the teens had told CBS2-TV that they received a text message from the engineer at 4:22 p.m. Friday. The wreck happened moments later.

Data show that the Metrolink train ran the red light signal with devastating consequences.

"The Metrolink train went through the signal, did not observe the red signal and essentially forced open this section of the switch," Higgins said. "The switch bars were bent like a banana. It should be perfectly straight."

Higgins said experts still must examine whether the signal was working properly and were in the Metrolink engineer's line of sight.

However, she stressed that obeying signals on the track was an engineer's responsibility at the helm of a train.

"My understanding is it is very unusual for an experienced engineer to run a red light," she said.

Metrolink said earlier Sunday that a dispatcher tried to warn the engineer of the commuter train that he was about to collide with a freight train but the call came too late. The dispatcher reached the conductor in the rear of the train, but by then it had already crashed into the oncoming Union Pacific train, Metrolink officials said.

However, the NTSB contradicted Metrolink's report. Higgins said that the dispatcher noticed something was wrong, but before he could contact the train, the conductor - who survived - called in to report the wreck.

There were no new reports of fatalities from hospitals Sunday, and the scene was cleared of bodies, said Lt. Cheryl MacWillie of the county coroner's office. Two more victims were identified, leaving only two whose names have not been released pending notification of kin.

The collision occurred on a horseshoe-shaped section of track in Chatsworth at the west end of the San Fernando Valley, near a 500-foot-long tunnel underneath Stoney Point Park. There is a siding at one end of the tunnel where one train can wait for another to pass, Tyrrell said.

The commuter train was heading from Union Station in downtown Los Angeles to Ventura County. The impact rammed the Metrolink engine backward, jamming it deep into the first passenger car.

It was the deadliest passenger train crash since Sept. 22, 1993, when Amtrak's Sunset Limited plunged off a trestle into a bayou near Mobile, Ala., moments after the trestle was damaged by a towboat; 47 people were killed.


Associated Press writers Thomas Watkins, Michael Blood, Daisy Nguyen, Christina Hoag, Greg Risling, Justin Pritchard, James Beltran, John Rogers, Shaya Tayefe Mohajer and Gillian Flaccus contributed to this report.

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