Thursday, March 05, 2009

NTSB Considers Video Cameras on All Trains

WASHINGTON - Federal investigators raised the possibility Wednesday that video cameras could be required aboard passenger, freight and commuter trains to avoid another accident like the deadly Metrolink crash in Chatsworth last September.

Officials with an investigative panel of the National Transportation Safety Board suggested video cameras might be a way to help enforce train regulations, such as a ban on cell phone use by crew members.

"If people know they're being watched, they're going to behave differently than if they're not being watched," said Kitty Higgins, chairwoman of a safety board panel that conducted a two-day hearing on the crash.

The panel is investigating the cause of the Sept. 12 accident in which a Metrolink commuter train collided head-on with a Union Pacific freight train in Chatsworth.

The accident killed 25 people, including the engineer of the Metrolink train, and injured 135 others.

Cell phone records indicate the Metrolink engineer, Robert Sanchez, had repeatedly violated the agency's policy against cell phone use in the hours leading up to the crash.

Records released by investigators show Sanchez had made four phone calls and sent or received 95 text messages the day of the accident, including 43 while he was on duty.

Sanchez's last text message - to a teenage acquaintance whom he intended to let drive the train later that night - was sent just 22 seconds before the collision.

Earlier that week, Sanchez had violated another Metrolink policy when he allowed the teen and a friend to ride along in the locomotive cab and even permitted them to operate the controls, a transcript of his text messages shows.

The conductor of the Union Pacific train also had been sending text messages while on duty the day of the crash, according to his phone records. His last message was sent just two minutes before the trains collided.

The crash led to a federal ban on cell phone use by rail workers and prompted Congress to pass a law requiring "positive train control" technology that can stop a train if it's headed for a collision.

During the hearing Wednesday, railroad officials said Sanchez's extensive text messaging illustrates the difficulty in enforcing such bans, particularly within the confines of the locomotive cab.

"If somebody is going to get out there and leave a station and start text messaging immediately, how do you know?" asked Doug Taylor, operating practices staff director of the Federal Railroad Administration.

Two union officials said that assigning a second person to the locomotive cab of every train would be a more effective way to avoid accidents.

Many trains travel with a two-person crew - the engineer, who runs the train, and a conductor, who is in charge of the train and is often in the passenger cars performing various duties.

"The fastest, most effective way in my eyes to prevent another accident like this is to have a second person in the locomotive," said J.R. Cumby, transportation safety team coordinator for the United Transportation Union.

Assigning a second person to the cab would add "a second set of eyes" and would go a long way toward preventing accidents, said William Walpert, national secretary treasurer of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.

Both unions said they would object to video cameras in the cab unless they served a "legitimate purpose." Putting in cameras "just for the sake of having cameras" would be "overly intrusive" and would not constitute a legitimate purpose, Walpert said.

Higgins said it's too early to say whether the safety board will recommend video cameras on trains. The panel would have to weigh the benefits against other issues such as privacy, but video cameras are something the board will consider to help improve train safety, she said.

Metrolink already is in the process of fitting its trains with video cameras and expects to finish later this year.

Higgins questioned whether simply assigning a second person to the cab would make trains safer. The Union Pacific train had three crew members, including two in the first locomotive, proving there isn't always safety in numbers, she said.

"There's not a 100 percent fix to this," Cumby conceded. "Human beings are going to not comply with things from time to time. That's the nature of all of us."

A visibly frustrated Higgins said it's unacceptable to argue that train regulations are unenforceable.

"You can have all of the rules in the world, but unless they're enforced, it doesn't take long to figure out they're not worth the paper they're written on," she said.

Random tests to monitor crews' cell phone usage or the installation of technology to block use of personal electronic devices on trains are other options that should be explored, Higgins said.

"We all need to think about those families who lost people in this accident," she said. "That can't be undone. But I don't think any of us want to be back here again (after another accident) because we didn't think there was a way to implement a regulation."

Meanwhile, a Union Pacific official warned the safety panel that it would be next-to-impossible to equip all of its trains with positive train control equipment in time to meet the deadline set under the new federal law.

Positive train control uses satellite-tracking devices to monitor the speed and location of trains and can automatically stop trains that bypass signals, exceed speed limits or head toward an obstacle in the tracks.

The law, signed one month after the Chatsworth crash, requires the installation of positive train control technology on all passenger lines by 2015. Metrolink and Union Pacific have said they intend to beat the deadline and have the equipment installed on trains in the Los Angeles area by 2012.

But Jeff Young, an assistant vice president of transportation system development for Union Pacific, said he doubts that the railroad can meet either target date.

Meeting the 2015 deadline would mean that 6,000 trains would have to be fitted at a rate of 10 a day, Young said.

"It's a daunting, daunting task," he said. "I wouldn't say we could make that date - not at this time.''

The safety panel wants to complete the investigation into the Chatsworth crash and issue its final report before the one-year anniversary of the accident, Higgins said.