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L.A. Train Crash Inquiry Targets Engineer's Actions

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L.A. Train Crash Inquiry Targets Engineer's Actions

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L.A. Train Crash Inquiry Targets Engineer's Actions

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Federal investigators say the engineer of a Los Angeles commuter train missed two verbal safety checks just moments before he slammed head-on into a freight train last Friday. They're also trying to determine if the engineer was using his cell phone. If so, it may have been why he ran a red light, causing a crash that killed him and 24 others. Last night, Kitty Higgins of the National Transportation Safety Board said her agency is talking with teenage train buffs who claim the engineer sent them a text message about a minute before the collision.

Ms. KITTY HIGGINS (Member, National Transportation Safety Board): We are going to be obtaining records from their cell phones and from the cell phones of the deceased engineer, and we will use our subpoena authority to get those records and what, if any, role that might have played in this accident.

MONTAGNE: Whatever the cause, some say the crash shows why the nation's railroads need to install new safety technology. NPR's Laura Sydell reports.

LAURA SYDELL: The National Transportation Safety Board, or NTSB, has been calling for railroad companies to install the new technology for 30 years.

Mr. BARRY SWEEDLER (Transportation Consultant; Former Senior Director, NTSB): This is a situation where this accident was totally preventable.

SYDELL: Barry Sweedler is a transportation consultant who spent more than 30 years at the NTSB as a senior manager. Sweedler says if for whatever reason the engineer does not stop for a red signal, which may be what just happened in Southern California, the technology takes control.

Mr. SWEEDLER: This automatically overrides the controls and either will slow the train down or bring it to a stop.

SYDELL: According to Sweedler, the NTSB has been advocating for this improved technology, called Positive Train Control, for high-risk corridors where freight and passenger trains share railway tracks. It was this kind of area where Friday's train crash took place. Sweedler says a report by the Federal Railroad Administration found that there were more than 80 deaths a year that could be prevented by the technology. Patti Reilly of the Association of American Railroads says they do want to install the Positive Train Control, and it is being tested by rail lines around the country. But finding the best possible technology system takes time.

Ms. PATTI REILLY (Vice President for Communications, Association of American Railroads): What we do is we're looking for the system that proves to be the safest for them all. And we are testing them right now. And we look forward to the day, sooner rather than later, when we know we have down on the track a system that is going to make it safe.

SYDELL: But it may be a question of bickering rather than testing, says Bill Keppen, a railroad consultant. He says the railroad companies all have different ideas.

Mr. WILLIAM KEPPEN (Railroad Consultant): If everybody can't agree on the kind of technology that should be driving the process, then it's always delayed and pushed out.

SYDELL: There's also the cost of installing Positive Train Control. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, to put it in on over 100,000 miles of track nationwide would cost more than $2 billion. Keppen does caution that we don't really know yet what caused Friday's accident. Although Metrolink, which operates the local commuter trains, has said they believe it was a human error, the NTSB is taking a more cautious approach. It's continuing to investigate, and it might take as long a year before it releases its definitive conclusions. But the transportation consultant Sweedler thinks this crash was so bad that the government may finally step in and require installation of the technology.

Mr. SWEEDLER: This one is so horrendous that I think we have finally reached a point where the government - if the Federal Railroad Administration doesn't require it, that the Congress will.

SYDELL: The recent crash was, indeed, the most tragic in Metrolink's 16-year history. With 135 people injured and more than 80 in serious or critical condition, it's possible that the death toll could still climb. Laura Sydell, NPR News.

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