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At 4:22 pm on September 12, 2008, a Metrolink commuter train struck an oncoming Union Pacific freight train in a head-on collision. Both trains were traveling at approximately 42 miles per hour, and the force of the collision was enough to cause a catastrophic derailment. Due to the timing of the accident coinciding with the end of week rush hour, the Metrolink train was carrying 222 passengers at the time of the accident.

How did it happen?

According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the engineer aboard the Metrolink train, Robert Sanchez, ignored or did not see a red light signal indicating that the section of track he was about to enter was not clear of traffic. Instead of stopping, Sanchez put the Metrolink train and its passengers directly into the path of the Union Pacific train. While a remote control station was monitoring that particular stretch of track at the time, no notification of Sanchez’s error was provided to railroad personnel until after the accident had occurred. The engineer aboard the freight train was only given 2 seconds notice to apply his brakes before impact, and Sanchez himself had no time to react whatsoever prior to the collision.

Aftermath

Emergency response to the accident was swift and overwhelming, with 250 firefighters, 30 fire engines and every available helicopter ambulance arriving at the scene in order to deal with casualties. 46 passengers were critically injured, and 23 people died immediately upon impact. The total number of injured rose to 135, with 25 ultimately perishing. 8 train cars and 3 locomotives in total were derailed, and service on the line was interrupted for four days while cleanup and investigation operations took place.

Safety lessons learned from the accident

Preliminary investigation by the NTSB suggests that the Metrolink engineer’s attention may have been distracted by text messages he was sending and receiving during operation of the commuter train, including one which occurred 22 seconds before the accident. The engineer also failed to communicate with the train’s conductor regarding the last 2 signals that were passed, as is required to be recorded. The switching and notification system was validated to be operating correctly at the time of the incident, leading investigators to conclude that the inattention of the engineer was the primary cause of the accident, compounded by the failure of the conductor to recognize the missed signal and apply the brakes.

A positive train control system which requires constant input by the driver in order to continue operation could have prevented this accident from occurring, particularly if coupled with a warning system that echoes the light signals typically used to control track traffic. Failure to respond to a stoplight or warning signal would automatically stop the train.

preventing a collision and keeping the engineer’s attention focused completely upon the task at hand.

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