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Metrolink engineer was texting at time of collision

Shirley Hawkins | 9/24/2008, 5 p.m.

The horrific Sept. 12th Metrolink collision in Chatsworth that killed 25 people and injured dozens has spurred state regulators to prepare to ban wireless devices for rail crews.
State Public Utilities Commission (SPUC) officials voted last Thursday to impose the cell phone ban, which came a day after federal investigators confirmed that a Metrolink engineer had been sending and receiving text messages when it collided with a Union Pacific freight train.
A unanimous vote was passed to impose an immediate ban on the use of wireless devices by train engineers, brakemen and conductors while on duty.
Under the order, rail systems operating in California could be fined up to $20,000 per violation if employees are caught using cell phones.
Investigators reported that train engineer Robert M. Sanchez was texting when the Metrolink train slammed into the freight train.
Sanchez's cell phone records showed he had been text messaging a group of local teens while on duty the day of the crash.
According to investigators, the teens were railroad enthusiasts who saw Sanchez as a mentor.
Investigators are still trying to determine why Sanchez did not heed signal lights warning that another train was heading his way.
The commission announced Thursday that it would conduct a thorough examination of train crew work schedules, including split-shift days such as the one worked by Sanchez on the day of the crash.
The SPUC also said that it would push harder for automated train-stopping systems, which federal investigators said would have prevented the Chatsworth collision.
Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer introduced legislation after the crash that would require railroad companies to install automated safety systems by 2012 in high risk areas where passenger and freight trains share tracks, and in all other areas by 2014.
The Metrolink board of directors unanimously approved a motion to support the Senate bill.
According to the SPUC, it was disclosed that commuter and freight rail systems, including Metrolink, have had various policies restricting cell phone use, but that there was no rule for regulating cell phone use by railroad crew members.
"These rules seem to lack appropriate enforcement," said Commission President Michael R. Peevey.