Texting and Driving: The 2008 Chatsworth Train Collision

Background

The location of Chatsworth in the southwestern Corner of North America.

The neighborhood is connected to the USA’s Railway infrastructure by the Chatsworth Transportation Center, a double-track train station served by Amtrak Intercity Rail and Metrolink Commuter Rail services on the latter’s Ventura County Line, a 114km/70.9mi partially double track non-electrified main line between Los Angeles Union Station in the southeast and East Ventura in the northwest. North of the station the line runs through Chatsworth in double track configuration, before slimming down to a single track as it leaves the neighborhood in a pair of turns letting trains turn almost 180° as they run almost parallel (if with some distance) to the Ronald Reagan Freeway.

The site of the accident seen from above, the Metrolink train came from the bottom right corner of the image.

The trains involved

Union Pacific №8485, the locomotive leading the freight train, photographed in Echo (Utah) in 2006.

Metrolink Train 111 was a regional passenger train from Los Angeles Union Station to East Ventura carrying 2 crew members (driver/engineer and a conductor) and 222 passengers. It consisted of two 2001 Bombardier full second class bilevel passenger cars and one 1992 control car of the same type allowing the trains to operate with a sole locomotive pushing from the rear at times. Each car measures 25.9m/85ft in length and weights 50 metric tons empty. In the configuration used by MetroLink each car can seat 143 people (142 in the control car according to the report), they are designed to accommodate as much as 360 passengers in each car if standing capacity is included.

A Mark 1 Bombardier Bilevel passenger car identical to those involved in the accident.

Pulling the train at the time of the accident was an EMD F59PH, a four-axle diesel-electric locomotive introduced in 1992. Measuring 117 metric tons in weight at 17.73m/58.2ft in length each F59PH puts out 2240kw/3000hp, plenty for the relatively light regional services.

A Metrolink-owned F59PH pulling a train near-identical to the one involved in the accident (4 instead of 3 cars) in San Dimas (California) in 2008.

The accident

A graphic from the report showing the stations surrounding the site of the accident.

At 4:20:07pm the train started to depart Chatsworth station. It ran under a yellow signal at the time (“approach”), which dictated a speed limit of 64kph/40mph. This speed limit is to be adhered to until the next signal can be clearly identified. It is mandatory procedure for the conductor and driver to call out signals to one another, but the conductor would later state that the last signal he heard Sanchez call out was two signals before Chatsworth station. At 4:20:51 Sanchez sounded the locomotive horn for 11 seconds as he navigated a level crossing, a second after the horn went quiet he received a seventh text message from the railroad enthusiast. Within the minute the speed of the train climbed to 84kph/52mph as the train navigated another level crossing with horn and bell. At 4:21:56pm the train ran past the red signal at the end of the double-track section at 71kph/44mph. 4 seconds later Sanchez fully released the brakes again (why he slowed down a little bit and then let go of the brakes again is unknown), a second later Verizon logged Sanchez sending his sixth text message on this shift. MetroLink 111 entered the single-track section unauthorized, bending the ends of the local set of points’ center piece, which was set up for the oncoming freight trian.

A sketch from the report showing the infrastructure around the crash site, “CP Topanga” is the red signal the MetroLink train ran.

Meanwhile the freight train was approaching the double-track section to a series of tunnels, expecting to pass into a siding ahead of the waiting MetroLink train. At approximately 4:22:16pm the freight train left the last tunnel at 64kph/40mph and entered a 6° right hand curve. At this point the MetroLink train came into view, heading right for the freight train.

A re-enactment of the moment the MetroLink train came into view, published in the report.

At this point, with a closing speed in excess of 129kph/80mph, the collision was doomed to happen. In a desperate attempt to lessen the consequences of the unfolding desaster the crew aboard the freight train triggered an emergency stop, knowing it wouldn’t stop their train. Much less the other one. At 4:22:23pm, 22 seconds after Sanchez sent his last text message, the two trains collided head-on 193m/634ft outside tunnel 28. Neither train had shaved off any speed, the MetroLink’s data logger even proved that the throttle wasn’t even pulled back or a stop had been initiated, before the trains collided at a combined 135kph/84mph. The leading locomotive of the freight train derailed and fell over as it pushed the MetroLink’s locomotive backwards, suffering extensive damage to the leading end but with the driver’s cabin remaining intact. The second locomotive remained upright but derailed, with the derailing freight cars pilling up behind it. The MetroLink’s forward section was crushed by the freight train’s locomotive, killing the driver on impact, and the locomotive was pushed into and partially through the leading passenger car as it fell over. It came to a rest on its side, compressed by 4.9m/16ft. The fuel tank tore off the locomotive during the collision and started a small fire which failed to reach the passenger cars or enter the freight train. 25 people died in the collision, another 135 survived with injuries (28 of which being listed as severe).

Aftermath

The wreckage a few hours after the collision, photographed from a helicopter.

The investigators were tasked with trying to find out how two trains could end up colliding on a single track section, what had caused such a massive tragedy. An enabling factor soon came to light, the section of track the accident happened on had no PTC (Positive Train Control, a safety-system designed to keep trains a safe distance apart), so while this alone didn’t make either train enter the single track section unauthorized it meant there was nothing apart from the crews’ presence of mind that could avoid a collision. The day after the accident Metrolink’s spokeswoman, Miss Tyrell, disclosed that a preliminary investigation of dispatch records and data-loggers had showed the driver of the Metrolink-train running a red signal, being quoted as saying “We don’t know how the error happened, but this is what we believe happened. We believe it was our engineer who failed to stop at the signal.” She went on to admitting publicly that, had her company’s engineer obeyed the signal, the collision wouldn’t have taken place. However, she was soon reigned in by Mister Knabe, a Metrolink board member and Los Angeles County Supervisor, who said it was premature to blame the deceased engineer and that there could’ve been a malfunction, like a signal showing a green signal on both sides of the single track section. Two days later Tyrell was asked to resign. She left the company after a board meeting harshly criticized her approach to public relations, saying it was wrong to make such a premature statement (disregarding that she had been told to make it). After her resignation her behavior was praised in the media, including an editorial in the LA Times saying that there is nothing premature about telling the truth, which is all she did.

Firefighters scale the wreckage of the leading passenger car, looking for victims.

Investigators soon ruled out that the signaling system had malfunctioned, meaning one of the trains definitely ran a red signal. The driver on the freight train ensured that he had not run a red signal, a claim backed up by a surveillance camera fitted to the locomotive. So Miss Tyrell had been right, the Metrolink train’s driver had run a red signal. But why?

KCAL showing one of the messages allegedly sent by Sanchez. Note the time-stamp of 4:22pm.

It was at this point when a local TV-station, KCAL-TV, broke the news that they had found a 16 years old local railway enthusiast who claimed to have exchanged text messages with the driver throughout the day, and who had the backlog of messages sent and received to prove it. The enthusiast said he had received a series of text messages from Sanchez throughout the day, which then suddenly stopped. When he went home and saw the wreckage on the news he knew why Sanchez had stopped responding. The NTSB’s investigators proceeded to comb through the wreckage of the locomotive, but failed to recover Sanchez’ cellphone. Instead they subpoenad Verizon to hand over the records, finding a series of messages sent by Sanchez until 22 seconds before the collision. Researching Sanchez’ phone usage and relations to the enthusiast community revealed that he had allowed a railway enthusiast to ride in the cab of the locomotive several days before the crash and was planning to let him co-pilot the train for 4 stations later in the day (“I’m gonna do all the radio talkin’ … ur gonna run the locomotive & I’m gonna tell u how to do it,”), a violent breach of company protocol, not to mention laws. Sanchez also had received two prior warnings about excessive phone usage while on duty. So with that, the official cause was set to be “inattentional blindness”, meaning Sanchez was so focussed on his phone he didn’t see the signal, or at least didn’t see that it was red. This is similar to car drivers sometimes running red lights because they are distracted, and being sure that the light was green because their brain decided it should have/has to have been green.

The destroyed Metrolink locomotive once it had been recovered from the wreckage.

An additional factor in the collision was the behavior of the conductor in the minutes leading up to the crash. Usually it’s mandatory that the driver (if he rides alone on the locomotive) has to call out signals to the conductor for confirmation. If these call-outs aren’t done the conductor is to assume that the driver became incapacitated and initiate an emergency stop. Records from the Metrolink train show that the last two signals were not called out by Sanchez, but the conductor still didn’t follow through with triggering a stop. Instead, unusually, the conductor reported the starting signal at Chatsworth station as green to the driver, rather than the usual chain of reports.

The diesel fuel burning at the site shortly after the collision.

Following what became the worst railway accident in the US since 1993 (the Big Bayou Canot Train Disaster claimed 47 lives) several improvements to railway safety were announced. A week after the accident the California Public Utilities Commission unanimously passed an emergency order banning cellphone usage by train crews, a week later steps were taken to ban texting while driving cars in California also, a law that came into effect by 2009. Steps were also taken to ban cellphone use for train crews nationwide. Congress passed the “Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008” shortly after the accident, requiring Class 1 main lines with regularly scheduled intercity or commuter rail services to implement PTC by December 31, 2015. A few months before the deadline only a few railroads were anywhere near implementing PTC, causing the deadline to be moved to December 31, 2018. This delay was cited as a contributing factor in the 2015 Philadelphia Train Derailment, which claimed 8 lives when a train derailed in a curve at twice the speed limit, something avoidable by PTC’s speed control function. Metrolink was the first commuter system to implement PTC on their trains and owned tracks, even using the system for advertising.

Soon after the accident various lawyers started filling claims against Metrolink, but due to a liability law introduced in 1997 claims were capped at a total of 200 million USD (169.8 million Euros). Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Peter Lichtman criticized the law, saying it left survivors and relatives undercompensated by at least 64 million USD (54.33 million Euros). Damage to material following the accident were estimated to be in excess of 12 million USD, with the freight train locomotives, a number of freight cars and the forward two cars of the Metrolink train being written off.

The remains of the freight train’s locomotives (left, center) photographed in Colton (California) in November 2011. The rear skeleton belongs to the locomotive from a different accident.

In September 2009 Metrolink unveiled a memorial plaza at Simi Valley station, the next station the Metrolink train would have arrived at. The memorial features 11 columns, one for each of the deceased passengers who lived at Simi Valley, as well as a separate column for the 14 victims from other cities and 25 personalized markers on the grounds, one for each victim. Additionally, a plaque reminds visitors of the 2005 Glendale Train Crash which claimed 11 lives.

Paul Miller, Simi Valley’s Mayor at the time, pausing at the Metrolink Memorial Plaza in 2009.

History repeats itself

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