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California Regulators Ban Cell Use by Train Operators

JEMS.com Editor's Note: Pick up a copy of April 2005 JEMS to read "Disaster on the rails" to read about another deadly Los Angeles-area train MCI.

LOS ANGELES -- California regulators reacting to the deadly wreck of a commuter train issued an emergency order Thursday banning train operators from using cell phones on duty.

The Public Utilities Commission's unanimous decision to pass the temporary order came a day after investigators confirmed that the engineer of the Metrolink commuter train was text-messaging while on duty on the day the train ran a red light and collided head-on with a Union Pacific freight train. Last week's wreck in Los Angeles killed 25 people, including the engineer, and injured more than 130.

Some railroads - including Metrolink - prohibit operators from using cell phones on the job, but the commission's president, Michael R. Peevey, has said the rules are widely ignored. There is no federal regulation of cell phone use by railroad workers and until Thursday there had been no California rules.

Under the new order the board approved in San Francisco, violators could be fined up to $20,000 per violation or have their operations shut down.

The National Transportation Safety Board requested the cell phone records of engineer Robert Sanchez after two teenage train fans said they exchanged text messages with him shortly before the crash Friday in the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Chatsworth.

An NTSB statement Wednesday night did not say how many messages were found in the records or if any texting occurred shortly before the crash.

Sanchez's cell phone was not found in the severely crushed and burned wreckage, but the teens told KCBS-TV last week that they received a text message from the engineer at 4:22 p.m. - a minute before the collision.

The crash occurred at a curve in the track just short of where a 500-foot-long tunnel separates Chatsworth from Simi Valley and Moorpark in Ventura County.

The NTSB has determined Sanchez did not apply the brakes before the collision and ran a red light that could have prevented it. The agency said the tracks and signals were working properly and that human error was to blame.

Investigators are looking into Sanchez's work schedule. He was working an 11 -hour split shift at the time of the crash. He began his shift at 6 a.m., took a nap during a 3 -hour break and resumed duty at 2 p.m., about 2 hours before the crash, the NTSB said.

Memorial services were held Thursday for some of the crash victims, including Los Angeles police Officer Spree Desha. "She was all we could ever ask of someone who puts this badge on their chest," Chief William Bratton said.

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