back to article California train smash driver sent text seconds before disaster

The driver of a Los Angeles commuter train that crashed into an oncoming freight locomotive last month, killing 25, was texting seconds before the impact, investigators confirmed today. The National Transportation Safety Board has been probing claims that Robert Sanchez, 46, missed a red signal because he was distracted by his …


This topic is closed for new posts.
  1. Vincent

    Don't use a mobile phone while driving a train.

    It's not big, and it isn't clever!

  2. Hywel Thomas



  3. Anonymous Coward

    Or this...

    'nuff said.

  4. Luke Watson

    The times sound very close to me

    i would hope that it would take more than a minute for a missed red light to cause a fatal accident. why are the trains so close?

  5. Anonymous Coward

    Why no safety equipment in use?

    A train shouldn't be ABLE to pass a red light, whether the driver sees it or not.

  6. Jims

    Lets hope he wasn't...

    Using his phone to text a status update to twitter or facebook, saying something along the lines of "oh sh*t I just passed a signal at danger, my supervisor is going to have my nuts when I get back to the depot."

  7. Jason Bloomberg Silver badge


    Maybe the driver is to blame for his own distraction but what mechanisms were in place to prevent such an incident when distraction is involuntary ? Who would sanction such a patently safety-critical system with no safeguard for this critical single-point failure mode ?

    The driver may have been the failure but far more people are responsible for the failure.

    Mine's the one with pockets full of 'cost-saving' dollar bills.

  8. Joe

    'cnt believe im stil so drunk frm last nite....

    ...hey im even seein double...i see anuva train'

    Mine's the anorak with the trainspotters handbook in the pocket

  9. Chris Judd

    @Luke Watson

    Actually, lets say both trains were travelling at a speed of 60mph (makes the maths nice and easy), then 1 minute before impact they would have been 2 miles apart; not so close really. It'd probably be wildly inefficient on a busy section of track to be segregating trains more than 2 miles apart...?

    Mandatory disclaimer, I'm not a train network engineer, so this is a very uneducated guess.

  10. Matt Siddall


    I could be wrong, but I do recall some years back there were suggestions to put things that automatically stop trains in case of danger signals and the like - and the unions blocked them, threatening to strike because it would make drivers less useful and they thought all the drivers would be got rid of...

  11. Anonymous Coward

    @Luke Watson

    Just like on the roads, red light means stop here, right now! Running a red light could put a train onto points (USA = switch) that would take the train head-on into another train. Even if the points aren't set this would derail you into the path of the oncoming train. DUH!!! Transport is dangerous, that's why you have to concentrate and obey the rules (its not just your arse at stake).

    Flames, like in "Under Siege 2"...

    Anon, 'cos of the reference to a Steven Seagal film...

  12. Erik Aamot

    more than that

    the guy misses the slow down signal, runs through the red light and the switch that would have taken the metrolink train to a side rail .. which he should have felt and heard (rail switch designed to break if hit at high speed so the train doesn't derail)

    oh .. btw .. the MTA, to save costs, also contracted out the train driver / engineers to some European company ( French as I recall ) ... though that wasn't a major factor, this enginner was experienced and run the route many times before

    it was a head-on in a curve, 3 car passenger vs long frieght train, both going about 40mph, at the point the engineers of either train had seen each other, it was too late to slow / stop.

    yes, should be automated systems that would have slowed the train, made the metrolink switch and stopped it, after all ...

    .. such systems, designed between multiple government agencies over lines controlled by different private interests, would certainly be infallible and allow the engineer(s) some much needed sleep !

  13. This post has been deleted by its author

  14. Cris Page

    Rail safety Uk style

    @ Matt Sidall. Strange union reasoning there, I assume it was the 'merkins union as the London Tube network has been equipped with a safety device for many many years. A "Tripcock" is fitted to all rolingstock and a "Trainstop" to signals, they work in tandem and will apply the brakes in the event of a train passing a red (Of hitting ther stick as it was called when I worked there) - unlike the old BR AWS - which I believe could be cancelled by the driver hitting a button to acknowlege the AWS alert - you have to reset these outside of the cab - once the "trip" is operated the train WILL stop, it works pretty damn well. If you are ever in London on the tube network, have a look at the right hand side of the track at the head of the platform (where the "station starter" signal is close enough to see), you should see an oblong box with pipes running to it and a "T" shaped arm attached to the outside which will be raised when the signal is red

    As for the trains being one minute apart or less, in some areas of London signalling sections can be quite short which allows for the capacity neccessary to service a city like London with numerous trains running fairly close together. I know that in some parts of the tube network signals are arranged to allow a train to approch within a quite short distance of one stationary ahead of it. Again its all perfectly safe. (ex tube worker)

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Jumping red lights

    I believe most of the systems in the UK warn the driver that they have past through a red light but doesn't stop the train. Though I do believe Chiltern Railways (Birmingham to London) do have the system on their trains that if they jump the red light then the train will stop itself.

  16. Ash



    Jesus, could any of you want ANY MORE of a cotton wool, bubble-wrapped society?! These drivers are TOTALLY at fault, need hanging out to dry, and should be found guilty of causing death through criminal negligence.

    I agree better safety systems should be in place to prevent this kind of mistake, but for crying out loud the only culprit here is the driver.

  17. Mr B

    Br(e)aking news

    Train Announcement:

    Please turn off all of your electronic gear and mobile phones must be switched off at all time since they may jam the signalling equipment.

    Londoners you've been warned.

    /mine's the one with elbow (brake) pads.

  18. James Pickett


    "Following the crash, authorities in California banned rail workers form using mobile phones while on duty"

    It didn't occur to them before, I suppose...

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    re:It strikes me as odd...

    The Unions.

    If we could automate the london underground we could have trains 24 hours a day, no strikes, no delayed due to drivers not turning up etc.

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    I spent several years riding several metrolink lines to and from work including the one involved in this accident. I can't begin to tell you how many times the thought of how the metrolink and freight trains were co existing on the same tracks crossed my mind. I had no idea the safety checks that are in place were so fragile that they basically don't mean a thing if the driver is distracted by something as innocuous as a text message.

    I can recall multiple times being late to get home due to switching issues and the drivers erring on the side of caution to stop the train well before an "intersection" with a freight train. Reading about this accident for the last month has made me very thankful that those drivers were paying attention.

    However there needs to be a better system put in place by metrolink to help prevent this kind of thing happening.

  21. Mark Hannan

    California train crash

    Most of the reporting on this tragedy has focused the blame on the driver text messaging. This may or may not have been the most contributing factor. There is evidence that he was taking medication for diabetes. Also that he was depressed from the suicide of his gay lover 5 years ago. Here's the point of all this: management should not let only one person drive the train. An airliner has a pilot and a co-pilot and so should the train. After all, there were a couple hundred lives at stake here.

  22. Anonymous Coward

    uk is somewhat safer

    uk systems:

    AWS (Advanced Warning System I think): Sounds a horn at red or yellow signals, will apply brakes unless driver cancels the alarm. *not* fool proof, can cancel and drive through red

    TPWS (Train protection & Warning System): applies the brakes on red signals, oh and also the speedtrap from hell. you can't override the red signal until the train has stopped, ditto the overspeed sensors.

    there is also ATP (Advanced Train Protection) which is even better, but not used universally.

    when was the last time a train had a head on in the uk (where one train hitting something wasn't involved?) ahhh yes an HST hitting a commuter train near london, commuter train didn't have TPWS and driver cancelled AWS...

    we do get signals passed at danger, just not that many that are dangerous

  23. J

    And the last message was...

    "Look, ma! No hands!"

    I know, I know...

  24. Anonymous Coward
    Jobs Horns

    And now for something tasteless

    If a freight train leaves Sacramento at 4:12pm traveling at 45mph with an alert driver and a passenger train leaves San Francisco at 4:58pm traveling at 75mph with a driver texting away on his Jesus phone how soon till they meet head on in Cupertino?

    /EvilJobs cause im sure that it wasnt mentioned what type of phone.

  25. Anonymous Coward

    So how does this work...

    If they collided a minute after the message was sent, was the texting to blame? Did he miss a red signal before a switch? It's not like he failed to swerve out of the way! A fully loaded train would probably need half a mile or better to even stop.

  26. Anonymous Coward

    Safety systems in the UK & @AC "Jumping Red Lights"

    On the UK's National Rail network all trains have two systems designed to prevent trains from coming into contact with each other if the driver doesn't respond to a red signal.

    The first is Automatic Warning System (AWS). As a train approaches a signal it passes over an permanent and electro-magnet between the track. The magnet's polarity tells the AWS system whether the signal is displaying a clear aspect (green) or a restrictive aspect (yellow, double-yellow or red). If it's clear a bell (or electronic 'ding') sounds in the driver's cab and the AWS display on the driver's desk shows a green 'sunflower'. If the signal is displaying a restrictive aspect then a horn sounds and the 'sunflower' is yellow. The driver must press a button to acknowledge that the signal is restrictive - the horn continues to sound until that acknowledgment is given. If the driver fails to acknowledge within 2 seconds then the emergency brakes are automatically applied.

    The second is Train Protection & Warning System (TPWS). This system is designed to bring the train to a halt safely if the driver fails to stop at a signal displaying a danger (red) aspect. It consists of a basic timer system on the train which is armed and disarmed by transmitter grids located between the tracks. As a train approaches a red signal it passes over a grid which arms (sets off) the timer, which is set for a fixed period (which I can't remember off the top of my head). If the time elapses before the train reaches the second grid then the system knows that the train is moving slowly enough to stop at the signal. If the time hasn't elapsed when the train passes over the second grid then the train is moving too fast and the emergency brakes are applied so as to safely stop the train within the safety 'overlap' beyond the signal. The two grids are spaced according to the appropriate stopping speed for the individual location (further apart = faster, closer together = slower). This is called the 'overspeed loop'. There's also a 'train stop loop', which is located actually at the position of the signal. These grids are located right next to each other so the timer will never be able to elapse and if a train passes over them the emergency brakes will be automatically applied.

    Parts of the Great Western Mainline (London Paddington - Bristol) and the Chiltern Railways line from London Marylebone have an Automatic Train Protection (ATP) system in addition to the above (these were installed by British Rail as a trail only, but have remained in use). These essentially present the driver with a safe speed profile, which, when slowing down, the driver must respond to or the system will intervene. Again, data for these systems are communicated to the train via balises between the tracks. These old ATP systems should effectively prevent a train from passing a signal at danger under normal track conditions, but they do come with an significant overhead in terms of network operation and capacity because the ATP system doesn't know what's going on until it passes over a balise, even through the driver does.

    HS1, the new 186mph line used by Eurostar between London St. Pancras and the Channel Tunnel uses a French designed signalling system called TVM430. This does away with conventional signalling and basically just displays a target speed on the drivers desk. Information is contuinually communicated to the train via coded track circuits (electronic signals sent through the track itself). It incorporates full ATP and doesn't bring the same problems as the old BR ATP systems, but is only really suited for the high speed lines it was designed for.

    In the future European Train Control System will be used throughout Europe. It has full ATP and in its various guises will be suitable for use on all types of mixed traffic railway.

  27. Nusato


    You do realize that an average freight train in the US will be over a mile long, right? And a passenger train of say, 10 cars, takes more than one minute to come to a complete stop. A freight train can take over a full mile to come to a complete stop. Quoting -

    A 150-car freight train traveling 50 miles per hour takes 8000 ft. (or 1.5 miles) to stop - between 2-3 minutes.

    An 8-car passenger train traveling 79 miles per hour takes 6000 ft. (or 1 1/8 miles) to stop - between 1-2 minutes.

    A sudden, uncontrolled stop is what causes derailments.

    One minute isn't enough time for a freight train to dodge a passenger train, at least not in the U.S. Even worse, the freight train was approaching around a curve....

    That time data above I got from a friend who works for CSX. He doesn't use his cell phone while driving trains, by the way.

  28. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
    Thumb Down


    "These drivers are TOTALLY at fault"

    Right. It's not like running a mix of freight and passenger trains together on the same network with small distances, no automatic braking system and apparently no way to tell the driver he just oversaw and passed a red signal sounds light an accident waiting to happen. But then again, this is America, where safety is optional and passenger train transportation is actively discouraged from time to time. says:

    "The MTA plans to commit $5 million toward safeguards on Metrolink tracks but has not identified where the money will come from.

    Automatic train stop technology already exists on 30 miles of Metrolink rail in Orange County and was installed by the Santa Fe Railroad in the early 1950s to allow passenger trains to operate at speeds faster than 79 mph.

    It was required at the time by the Interstate Commerce Commission, a regulatory agency abolished in 1995."

  29. Chris G

    Automatic trains

    Hitachi build automatic railway systems, but I think they still sit a meatbag in the cab for the punters to look at. Lille in France has the longest automatic metro system in the world and France ,Germany and the UK have all experimented and are considering automatic systems.

    @ASH safety systems are necessary because there is no way to prevent a driver from being distracted occasionally, head clamping and eyelid removal is apparently frowned on by unions, the responsibility in the event of an accident involving missed signals is usually put down to the driver in the first instance pending inquiries.

  30. Mike Lovell

    re: re:It strikes me as odd...

    "If we could automate the london underground we could have trains 24 hours a day, no strikes, no delayed due to drivers not turning up etc."

    Are you mad? If that happens then the tube workers will not have an iron grip on their management's (and the City of London's) collective balls - They might also have to take a pay cut, further reducing their ridiculously low wages and high work hours. Who can afford to live on 40k a year for a couple of hours work a day.

    Oh, wait, hang on...

  31. Michael

    <insert title here>

    "Following the crash, authorities in California banned rail workers form using mobile phones while on duty."

    The company that operated the MetroLink train ALREADY HAD a policy banning it's engineers from using mobiles while on duty.

  32. Anonymous Coward


    He may have sent a text seconds before something, but think orders of magnitude...

    I have a glue that "sets in seconds", which takes slightly over 24hours to set... technically, yes, it does set in secconds, just several thousands of them.

    just my £2x10^-2 worth.


  33. Martin Usher

    Its probably not as straightforward as this

    The distance from the station to the signal is about a mile and that signal is clearly visible from the station platform (I think there's another signal at the station platform). Its unlikely that the driver accelerated away from the station into a red signal -- he, like at least one witness on the platform (interviewed on TV) probably saw a green signal. What may have happened is that the signal 'bounced' to red when the freight train approached a section of track two signals (or about a mile and half) further on. I've seen them do this -- you don't normally notice it because the signals are only lit when there's a train around -- and its really disconcerting if you're a rail passenger. This is an odd accident since the train operator is required to report in all signals as he or she passes them. The texting issue is a red herring -- trains aren't cars, and while the driver shouldn't be sending messages back and forward like this one did the amount of distraction is minimal. (Its like a plane -- if you're that close that you can't send a message then you're screwed anyway.)

    Some other things....

    The switch points won't derail a train because unlike England they're sprung like catch points.

    The freight this train his is a local pickup, its a short train that you see around this time every day. (You're looking out the window, bored and its the sign that the workday's almost over.....)

    The Metrolink train engineer was an empoyee of Connex, a company that many of our readership will know well. I hadn't been paying attention...I thought they were Amtrak contractors but apparently Connex beat them out in some kind of competitive bidding process.

  34. Anonymous Coward

    All I can say is

    As my sister-in-law was one of the fatalities, the idea that the only way to prevent head on collisions between trains relies solely on the ability of the train engineer to stop his train, something is somewhat amiss.

    This stretch of track is infamous in LA for the number of train accidents, including things like jumping rails to the track designated for trains traveling in the opposite direction. The fix for this little conundrum was apparently removing the second track and have trains traveling both ways use the same one.

    I'm with those that wonder why we can't automatically stop a train that approaches a red light, especially given that text messaging is simply one amongst hundreds of different reasons why an engineer might be unable to stop his train.

    Needless to say this being the US, lawsuits are forthcoming, and having spoken to Metrolink myself, very much expected. Just the simple idea that two trains, traveling in opposite directions, can legitimately exist on the same track without some sort of automated emergency response is enough for me to say on this occasion I have a lot of sympathy for those filing them.

    Especially given that I personally know the husband, son and daughter of one of the deceased. Certainly mine is biased opinion, but I don't remember too many occasions back home in England where two fast moving trains traveling towards each other were allowed to share a track. At least not where automatic fail safe technology wasn't employed if the driver or engineer became incapacitated in some way.

  35. Tam Lin

    Get your priorities requeued

    This happened in America; this is no-one's fault. Rather, this is a chance for lawyers, politicians and connected contractors, as is their wont and privilege, to feed at the bloody trough of survivors' body parts.

    Denise Tyrrell (ex-spokeswoman for the train line) was forced to resign (read: fired by cowards) for telling the truth about who was at fault soon after the accident. And fired with due cause: consider that now it will be harder to find jurors in east Texas to properly move monies from the corporations with the most insurance to the lawyers with the most campaign contribution receipts.

  36. David

    @ Ash

    "These drivers are TOTALLY at fault, need hanging out to dry, and should be found guilty of causing death through criminal negligence."

    What, posthumously?

  37. Big Pete

    The message was...

    U R on same trk as me

    pls stop.

  38. Moss Icely Spaceport


    This story sure brought out the anoraks!

  39. Sean Baggaley

    @Anonymous Coward

    "I don't remember too many occasions back home in England where two fast moving trains traveling towards each other were allowed to share a track."

    The UK has a far, far higher population density than the US, so single-track sections are rare. They do exist in rural areas, but are usually subject to a "token block" signalling system of some sort (based on a system developed by the Victorians.) This system is certainly safe, but dramatically limits the service frequency as only one train is allowed on a stretch of single track at a time. No great loss in the UK as such lines see very little traffic anyway. Branch lines for goods services tend to be single-track, but the UK rail network is mostly passenger-oriented.

    In the US, with its huge distances, single-track lines are *everywhere*, even in urban and suburban areas with high populations. This is a direct result of the country's history -- when the lines were built, populations were tiny and most of the traffic was freight; a pattern which has held true until quite recently. There is a far greater focus on freight rather than passenger traffic. Instead of running lots of short trains, the single-track sections have encouraged fewer, but much, much longer trains. (Freight trains in the US can be well over a mile long. Some one-off services reached over four miles in length.)

    The US is only now reaching the point where rail travel is looking more attractive again, with increasing levels of patronage, but it'll be decades before investment in new infrastructure and better practices makes a noticeable impact. (California's proposed high-speed line is an encouraging sign.)

  40. Anonymous Coward

    What if...

    He was texting to update his facebook status...

    "Robert Sanchez is... having a wank while driving the train lol!"

  41. Anonymous Coward

    sod texting its oldskool

    I just got meself a 3G Netbook....

    look ma no hands...

    wheres the train icon...

  42. Ed

    freight train engineers?

    I've seen freight trains stop in the US. Every time, the train traveled over a mile in the process. Having a mile of perfectly straight track appears quite rare to me. Given typical visibility less than the stopping distance, other than being there to stop the train if the remote control breaks down, what purpose does having a person on the freight train serve?

    Oh, right. Person to take the blame for train wrecks. I guess it's fitting, then, that they tend to be union workers who've blocked the automation technology deployments which would allow the train companies to actually make them all redundant...

This topic is closed for new posts.

Other stories you might like