Oxnard is a city of 202063 people (as of 2020) on the western coast of the USA, located in the federal state of California 84km/52mi west-northwest of Los Angeles and 56km/35mi southeast of Santa Barbara (both measurements in linear distance).
Oxnard lies on the Coast Line, a single-tracked non-electrified rail line running along the pacific coast between Burbank and San Francisco. The first section opened in 1864 near San Francisco, with several patches growing and eventually connecting up in 1900 before the final routing was arranged in 1935. As it is typical for US rail lines the line is owned by different companies, with the section at Oxnard being owned by Union Pacific Railroad (UP), a private freight rail company from Nebraska (USA). All sorts of trains use the line, with UP running freight services on it while also allowing other companies to “rent” capacities, bringing regional, interstate and even cross-country passenger services to the line.
The Vehicles Involved
Metrolink train number 102 was a regional passenger service running from Ventura County to Los Angeles. The train consisted of a EMD F59PH four-axle diesel locomotive pushing a set of 4 bilevel passenger cars. Cars 1 (the leading car), 3 and 4 were Hyundai-Rotem Commuter Cars introduced into service in 2008, with the leading car being a so-called cab car/control car called CTC-5. Control cars are passenger cars featuring a driver’s cab at one end, at the price of slightly reduced seating capacity. They don’t have a propulsion system, instead the driver’s cab is used to remotely control the locomotive on the opposite end of the train. Using control cars has become the standard in modern regional passenger services (and even a lot of long-distance services use them), as it means a train can turn around without requiring the locomotive to be moved from one end of the train to the other. The CTC-5 can seat 173 passengers with space for another 179, while cars 3 and 4 had a capacity of 179 seated and 185 passengers.
Car 2 was an older model Bombardier bilevel passenger car, which could be distinguished by its older white-blue Metrolink-livery. The Bombardier car had a capacity of 162 seated passengers. The train was just about empty at the time of the accident, carrying 51 passengers, a driver (referred to as an “Engineer” in the USA) and a trainee driver.
At the time of the accident Mister Sanchez-Ramirez was driving southbound through Oxnard with a 2005 Ford F450, pulling an enclosed two-axle multipurpose trailer. The F450 is a large pickup intended for commercial use, with the 2005 version measuring 6.65m/21.8ft in length at 2.03m/6.7ft wide and a weight of 3.89 metric tons.
The pickup was towing an enclosed two-axle multipurpose trailer made by Wells Cargo measuring 2.56m/8.4ft in width and 6.09m/20ft in length at a weight of approximate 1.31 metric tons empty.
On the 24th of February 2015 Mister Sanchez is driving southbound through Oxnard on Rice Avenue at 5:30am, intending to turn right onto East Fifth Street. At the same time 62 years old Mister Steele is driving an early morning Metrolink service from Ventura County to Los Angeles and had just reached Oxnard station. Mister Steele, the trainee in the cab with him and his conductor were employed by Amtrak, who also officially provide the service with loaned Metrolink rolling stock.
Mister Sanchez turns right as he approaches the intersection with East Fifth Street. His Pickup suddenly bucks hard before grinding to a halt, it takes Mister Sanchez a second to realize that he had turned early, mistaking the level crossing for the adjacent intersection, and had ended up on the railway tracks, beaching the car on the southern rail with his right hand wheels in the center of the track. He turns on the hazards (indicators flashing all around) before attempting to push the heavy rig off the tracks by hand. After trying and failing to dial 911 (the USA’s number for the emergency services) he eventually abandons the car and wanders off.
The level crossing behind the stricken pickup turns on at 5:41am, as Metrolink #102 approaches the site. Trains are allowed to use the level crossing at 127kph/79mph, so Mister Steele was accelerating as he pulls away from Oxnard station. The train reaches 103kph/64mph before Mister Steele spotts the obstacle in his path and triggers an emergency stop, possibly knowing that he can only lessen the imminent collision, not avoid it. The train strikes the pickup at 5:44am, travelling at 90kph/56mph. The trailer is torn off the pickup as the leading car of the train derails, heading through the level crossing before turning left and falling over. The other three cars detach from each other, all of them derail with cars 2 and 3 overturning as well. Car 2 slides onto the East Fifth Street (which runs parallel to the rail line) but manages to miss any passing motorists. Only the locomotive remains upright and on the tracks. Mister Steele suffers life-threatening injuries from being thrown around his cab while another 33 people on the train suffer injuries as well, 13 of which being listed as severely injured.
Arriving firefighters quickly extinguished a fire which had consumed most of the trailer at the level crossing, while medical responders pulled Mister Steele from his cab and had him airlifted to hospital. It was briefly assumed that Mister Sanchez had died in the unrecognizable remains of the pickup, until witnesses pointed police officers in the direction they had seen him wander off. Officers manage to track him down shortly after the accident, arresting him about a mile from the site.
The NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board, the entity in charge of investigating rail accidents in the USA) dispatched investigators to the site who quickly figured out that the derailment occurred after the train struck the pickup truck, which had erroneously turned into the train track instead of turning right at the intersection right behind the level crossing. They also recovered the footage from the train’s onboard forward-facing camera, which confirmed the theory as it clearly shows the pickup lodged on the track 24m/80ft west of the level crossing. Mister Sanchez was interviewed by officers from the local police department, but made use of his right to refuse a separate interview with NTSB investigators.
The NTSB did receive information from the police interview, along with arranging interviews with Mister Sanchez’ son and his employer. And with those infos they soon managed to explain why the accident had occured. In short, Mister Sanchez had been driving while he was, by all means, ridiculously fatigued. He had reported to his employer, an Arizona-based farming company, at 5:51am the previous day, meaning at the time of the accident he had been on the road for 23 hours and 53 minutes. He had reported for work in Somerton, Arizona, and a mechanical failure, replacement pickup and minor fender bender later he was heading towards the East Fifth Street in Oxnard, having spent almost 24 hours at work and most of that time driving or dealing with unscheduled (and stressful) interruptions.
Mister Sanchez had been driving based on written instructions in Spanish and a navigation-software on his smartphone. And in essence all he did was, after his overly lengthy workday, accidentally turning a corner a little early. Tragically, rather than getting stuck in a field or maybe bumping a parked car he turned right just as he passed a level crossing, leading to his vehicle becoming stuck on the track.
Investigators contacted Mister Sanchez’ employer, inquiring how it could be that a company with spotless records had an employee behind the wheel for 16 hours and 45 minutes, well beyond the legal duty time limit for commercial drivers. The reply from the company was quite simple: Mister Sanchez wasn’t considered a commercial driver. He had been hired as an equipment mechanic. The company had designated commercial drivers, whom they surveilled at or above the required standard, but they had failed to notice that Mister Sanchez’ route (crossing the border between states) and the weight of the pickup and trailer put him above the limit where he counted as a commercial driver and thus would’ve required closer observation, including having his duty time tracked and limited.
Mister Sanchez explained his disappearance from the site as having originally panicked, which supposedly also explained why he tried to push the multi-ton rig off the tracks and why he couldn’t place a call to 911. He then intended to flag down a passing car for help, which was made difficult by the low traffic at the time and the fact that Sanchez didn’t speak english. He eventually ran into a pair of police officers (which ended up arresting him, too), but even those only figured out what was going on when he handed them his phone, via which Sanchez’ son explained what his father was trying to communicate.
Things took a turn for the worse a week after the accident, when Mister Steele succumbed to his injuries at the hospital, making the accident a fatal one. This development led to Mister Sanchez, who had been released from his previous arrest (hit and run/leaving the site of an accident) after two days, being charged with vehicular manslaughter in February 2016. In the eyes of the prosecution, he should have realized his degraded alertness/high fatigue and stopped driving well ahead of the accident. He admitted guilt and was sentenced to 30 days in jail.
The report notes that the control car’s so-called “pilot assembly” (often referred to as a cow catcher or snow plough) had torn off during the derailment, but no other damage appeared to stem from the impact with the pickup. The CTC-5 is among the most modern rolling stock in the USA, they were introduced as an attempt to improve passenger and crew safety after the 2008 Chatsworth Train Collision (which was the subject of an earlier article on this blog). The control cars feature a very distinctive nose-section similar to locomotives like the GE Genisis-series. This section offers a rigid survival cell for the driver along with dedicated crumple zones to absorb energy in an accident, which ties into improved crash safety and compartment rigidity in the passenger area. Before the introduction of the CTC-5 control cars on US rail networks were barely distinguishable from regular cars by looking at them, as the control desk would be installed in an area usually used for seating and the train cars would be just about identical structurally. The new cars not only offered generally higher crash protection, but also additional safety-measures for the driver.
But with all the safety-engineering in place, how did Mister Steele suffer fatal injuries? The investigation finds that the collision, which obliterated the pickup, didn’t actually exert sufficient forces on the front of the control car to compress any of the crumple-zones or strain the safety-cell engineered into the body of the car. Instead, the fact that the car overturned after the collision is what caused the injuries suffered by the people onboard, throwing them against the interior walls and/or furniture. The crash protection structures were intended for a heavier impact and didn’t “activate” at all in this case. This finding reactivated the discussion over improved occupant safety in overturning rail cars, such as installing seatbelts and banning the transport of standing passengers. However, as of fall 2023, no such measurements appear to have been implemented.
Metrolink stopped the use of control cars as the head-end of a train after the accident, borrowing locomotives from BNSF and running their trains in a “sandwich” configuration with a locomotive on either end of the train. This was triggered by inspections of other CTC-5 cars finding insufficient attachment points for the pilot assemblies, an issue which cost Metrolink 1.5 Million USD to fix. The control cars returned to their regular duties in fall 2016, with the borrowed locomotives being returned to BNSF. The improved attachment points are intended to reduce the risk of the pilot assemblies tearing off during an accident, which could lead to derailments and/or the deflection of a derailed train off the tracks.
Mister Sanchez had been far from the first motorist to end up on the rail line at that location, records showed that firefighters had been called to recover vehicles from the railroad track in that location 18 times in the previous years. The city of Oxnard actually had had plans in place to replace the intersection and level crossing with an overpass, separating trains and road vehicles. The planned bridge, which would look somewhat like the on-/off-ramps to an interstate, would cost 35 Million USD and remove any risk of a collision between road vehicles and any of the 32 trains passing the site every day. But while the report mentions environmental studies being underway and the project being supposed to finish construction in 2021 the bridge has yet to materialize, with the county’s local government being hesitant to fund the construction-phase. As such the only improvement installed after the accident are two reflective knee-high bollards next to the level crossing’s barriers and an extension of the white “edge of roadway” line right up to the rails.
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