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Rick Shapiro
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Los Angeles Train/Railroad Wreck Emphasizes Need For Positive Train Control (Automatic Stop) Systems For Railroads

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The recent 2008 Los Angeles/Chatsworth train/railroad disaster serves to underscore the need for immediate regulation and implementation of Positive Train Control(automatic stop) systems for railroads in order to avoid death and injury to both passengers and the general public. Secondarily, it may be appropriate to implement restrictions on how and when railroad management and crew use cell phones/or handle text messages during train operations, as texting may have caused the Chatsworth train wreck according to investigators. Our personal injury law firm lawyers though based in Virginia, are active on a national basis in railroad safety/injury issues, with John Cooper serving as chair of the railroad injury lawyers section of the American Association for Justice until summer, 2009, and this author previously serving the same post. As active personal injury lawyers for rail workers, and for families in wrongful death railroad injury cases, we and the AAJ have also been involved in pushing railroad safety for years, and we have written extensively about railroad crossing safety law. The 2008 Chatsworth train collision occured at 16:23 PDT (23:23 UTC) on September 12, 2008, when a Union Pacific freight train and a Metrolink commuter train collided head-on in the Chatsworth district of Los Angeles, California, in the United States. The collision is the deadliest railway accident in Metrolink’s history, and the worst in the United States since the Big Bayou Canot train disaster in 1993.

The crash occurred after the Metrolink passenger train’s engineer, Robert Sanchez, apparently failed to obey a red stop signal that indicated it was not safe to proceed into the single track section, and according the the New York Times, Sanchez, may have been exchanging text messages on his cell phone in the minutes before his commuter train smashed into the freight train. Two young men, who were rail/train buffs, told KCBS-TV that they had taken part in the text messages with the engineer right before the crash, and are cooperating with investigators. Sanchez died in the crash, but investigators are examining the cell phone company data. Twenty-four bodies were recovered from the scene, and two victims who had been pulled out alive died at nearby hospital in the following days A total of 135 were reported injured, 47 of them critically. Approximately 100 people were taken to hospitals, with 40 of them medevaced by air ambulance helicopters.

This crash underscores the need for increased scrutiny of why the nation’s freight railroads have not been moving more swiftly to implement positive train control (PTC) systems on trains, which use computers to automatically brake/stop trains if a train runs by a “red” or stop signal, or if computer data shows that two trains are travelling on a single track head on. We all are familiar with GPS/global positioning systems and yes, many railroads already have implemented GPS, but full train control systems are much more complicated and expensive. Thus, delay in implementation. Thus, issues on how such control systems must meet baseline standards. And what about the lack of any federal regulations governing when rail management or its crews can communicate with each other by mobile phone/text message, or when crew may use cell phones? These thorny issues are addressed in parts two and three of this series.

Part Two of this series: Train Crash May Underscore Need to Swift Implementation of Positive Train Controls for Major Railroads

Part Three of this series: Should The Federal Railroad Administration Enact Regulations on Cell Phone Use By Railroad Management and Transportation Crews in Light of Metrolink-UP Disaster?