It’s been exactly one month since California’s deadliest train collision and when “Why Train Collisions Occur Despite Ongoing Efforts to Stop Errant Trains in Their Tracks Before Disaster Strikes” was published on the California Progress Report on September 14, just two days later.
Since that time, there has been much attention paid to this incident; near-limitless grieving for victims, their families and friends; intense investigative work into the cause of this crash; congressionally passed legislation aimed at preventing train collisions and over speed derailments on all domestic mainline railroad track through the use of Positive Train Control incorporating collision-avoidance provisions and to be implemented on all railroads by 2015, where freight and passenger trains use the same tracks and/or where any train-hauled hazardous material transported is deemed an “inhalation hazard” should this be released into the atmosphere – legislation that awaits the President’s signature; efforts by Metrolink – the southern California commuter rail agency whose Train #111 of September 12, 2008 was involved in the aforementioned crash that fateful day – to provide a second engineer in locomotives and operating areas of cab-control cars on many of its commuter runs; and an outright ban on cell phone use in California as it applies to railroad operating personnel whose jobs it is to operate trains in state.
Meanwhile, a joint declaration titled: “Railroad Industry Leaders Agree On Establishing Positive Train Control Interoperability Standards” was released jointly on October 8, 2008 by the Union Pacific, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, and Norfolk Southern, three of this nation’s largest freight railroad companies, addressing a related issue – PTC interoperability standards. And in related news, the Los Angles Times reported that, “Two freight railroads that share track with Metrolink commuter trains pledged Wednesday to install advanced safety measures in Southern California three years sooner than a new federal law would require — with several caveats.
“Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Union Pacific executives, who called U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) earlier this week to inform her of their decision, said the system’s complexity may prevent a complete rollout by 2012.” Executives from the two railroads indicated that in order to ensure that the installation and operation of the safety improvements in question could be completely carried out, at least according to the way that I understand it, are seeking support from federal regulators.
Also according to other information in the same L.A. Times piece, “The freight companies also testified that the system is too difficult and expensive to install on all their locomotives by 2012, although their tracks should be equipped with the system by then.”
The concluding statement of this same L.A. Times story was this:
“Federal investigators say the engineer involved in the Chatsworth crash did not heed a warning signal light and had been receiving and sending text messages on his cell phone seconds before the crash.”
As frank as the above statement may be or may appear to be, in my opinion, the most startling piece of information to surface since the investigation launched into this collision began, has to do with three eyewitness accounts regarding the color of the signal light in question Robert Sanchez, the locomotive engineer identified as having “supposedly” missed that critical signal due to text messaging activities it has been determined he was engaged in up to 22 seconds prior to the collision, information that apparently prompted coverage in the L.A. Times as well , a signal that the three eyewitnesses mentioned in the L.A. Times piece, claim was “green.”
In light of this recently newfound information, what bearing on the investigation will the testimony provided by the three eyewitnesses have in the coming days, weeks and months?
I do not know the answer to this question, but it does raise a whole slew of new possibilities as far as “what went wrong where” and “why.” When the final National Transportation Safety Board investigation into this matter is concluded and the findings released, regardless of the determination into the cause this, the deadliest of California train collisions, people will want assurances that these types of disasters can be prevented and that the technology to assure this will be there. I don’t believe that is too much to ask considering that Positive Train Control technology incorporating collision-avoidance is a reality and is certainly well within our capability to implement it nationwide. Once it is, the implications will be far-reaching.
Alan Kandel is a concerned California resident advocating for new, improved and expanded freight (and passenger) rail service. He is a retired railroad signalman previously employed by the Union Pacific Railroad in Fremont, California.