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Rick Shapiro
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Should The Federal Railroad Administration Enact Regulations on Cell Phone Use By Railroad Management and Transportation Crews in Light of Metrolink-UP Disaster?

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[Part Three of this series]

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.

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.

The use of cell phones and sending/receiving text messages by railroad management to crews, or by transportation crews and others, has not been a subject of federal regulation to date. However the Public Utilities Commision of California passed a temporary order banning train operators from using cell phones on duty (in September 2008) in response to the Chatsworth-Metrolink-UP train crash disaster. The order came one day after investigators confirmed that the engineer, Robert Sanchez, was texting while on duty-even though there is no confirmation of whether he was texting at the critical moments where he passed by the visible “stop” signal in question. Due to questions about the jurisdiction of the State of California to regulate interstate railroads (The Federal Railroad Administration is the federal regulatory authority of train operations) it is unclear if the new California order will apply to interstate railroads at all.

A remarkable new British Study found that the reaction times of people texting as they drove cars fell by 35 percent, while those who had consumed the legal limit of alcohol, or smoked pot/marijuana, fell by 21 percent and 12 percent respectively. Texting while driving is more dangerous than being drunk or stoned!

Certainly, it is distracting to a locomotive/train engineer to receive a cell phone call or text from a supervisor, for example. Further, since there are no federal railroad regulations on cell phone use at this time, one can only expect a railroad engineer to occasionally use a cell phone as a means of communications (just like we do in cars) UNTIL the federal railroad administration sets down regulations on their use.

According to the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen rail workers union (BLET) in 2003, the NTSB recommended that the Federal Railroad Administration regulate the use of cell phones by railroad employees on duty after finding that a coal train engineer’s phone use contributed to a May 2002 accident in which two freight trains collided head-on near Clarendon, Texas. The coal train engineer was killed and the conductor and engineer of the other train were critically injured. The BLET union represents many of the nation’s railroad engineers, and their website does not indicate the union’s position on banning or regulating cell phone usage during train operations.

My take: The Federal Railroad Administration needs to regulate this issue, and clearly the unions and management will have their input on the nature of the restrictions. Safety demands that controls be implemented at to when and how cell phones may be used as an outright ban would not work, especially relating to use of mobile phones for a specific emergency or safety purpose.