Calif. Passes Ban On Train Operators' Cell Phone Use

Federal investigators say a Metrolink commuter train engineer was sending text messages when he ran a stop signal and slammed into an oncoming freight train. It has prompted California to pass a temporary ban on train operators from using their cell phones while on the job.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

You're listening to All Things Considered from NPR News. Today, the state of California made it illegal to drive a train while using a cell phone or other wireless device. That comes in response to last Friday's deadly crash between a Los Angeles commuter train and a freight train. It turns out the commuter train engineer sent text messages while he was on duty that day.

NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports on that new development and on calls for help from survivors just after the crash.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: The city of Los Angeles has just released 911 tape from some of the calls that came in immediately after Friday's train wreck in the L.A. suburb of Chatsworth. Many of the calls came from passengers surrounded by wreckage.

Unidentified Man#1: Ma'am, is that a train versus another train or train versus a vehicle?

Unidentified Woman: Yes, train versus another train. People are bleeding and hurt here.

GRIGSBY BATES: This passenger was attempting to assess the scope of the disaster for emergency personnel.

Unidentified Man#2: I'm now trying and get - to see if I can get off the train right here and if I could hear anything.

GRIGSBY BATES: When he was outside his train car, he was stunned by what laid before him.

Unidentified Man#2: That - that last car is almost virtually destroyed.

GRIGSBY BATES: The National Transportation Safety Board confirmed that Metrolink engineer Robert Sanchez was sending and receiving text messages on the day of the accident. 25 people died, including the engineer. Dozens more were injured. Investigators have yet to pinpoint whether text messaging was the cause of the crash.

Today, in an emergency measure, members of the California Public Utilities Commission decided to ban all use of personal cell phones and wireless communications by train personnel. Commission Chief Bob Peevey announced the unanimous vote.

Mr. BOB PEEVEY(Chief, California Public Utilities Commission): Today's action will protect the public by putting in place rules that prohibit the personal use of cell phones and other electronic devices while a train is moving.

GRIGSBY BATES: The Metrolink crash placed new focus on all elements of the train system, human and mechanical. California Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer introduced the legislation this week to make automated safety equipment mandatory for all large railway systems. On the Senate floor, Feinstein indicated where she thought much of the blame lay for the Chatsworth crash.

Senator DIANNE FEINSTEIN (Democrat, California): This accident happened because of a resistance in the railroad community in America to utilize existing technology to produce a fail-safe control of trains.

GRIGSBY BATES: A system, Feinstein says, that is particularly necessary for Metrolink.

Senator FEINSTEIN: I'm sorry to have to say this, but southern California has the most high risk track in America.

GRIGSBY BATES: Safety experts say this is because the network of commuter trains in Southern California goes through densely populated areas, and the region's passenger cars often share lines with commercial freight trains.

Some train companies counter that money isn't so much a factor as getting the safety technology right. The technology has already proven itself in the Northeast corridor. Senator Feinstein acknowledges compliance will be costly but has a question for rail companies that would hesitate.

Senator FEINSTEIN: Well, how expensive is the loss of human life?

GRIGSBY BATES: Legislators at the state and national level are hoping these measures will prevent other families from paying that cost in the future. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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