Crash investigation continues

BY PJ HELLER | PLACENTIA, Calif. | April 26, 2002

Federal investigators Thursday attempted to determine why a freight train ran past two warning signals before crashing head-on into a commuter train during the morning rush hour here, killing two people and injuring more than 260.

"There is no question that the Burlington Northern (freight) train should have stopped," Marion C. Blakey of the National Transportation Safety Board told a news conference Wednesday. "The question is why it didn't stop."

Officials said they had ruled out brake and mechanical equipment failure as well as track and signal problems. They were focusing on the engineer of the 67-container-car Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight train and why he apparently failed to heed a yellow warning signal and then failed to stop at a red signal.

Blakey said the freight did not slow at the yellow light and only applied its emergency brakes after it passed the red light. She said the freight was traveling at 48 miles per hour when it passed the red light and was going about 20 mph when it slammed into the stopped Metrolink commuter train, buckling the cars and catapulting passengers from their seats.

The engineer on the Metrolink ran through the train in an attempt to warn passengers. Metrolink carries 32,000 passengers daily on 128 trains.

The commuter train was en route from Riverside to San Juan Capistrano, Calif. The freight was headed from Los Angeles to Clovis, N.M.

The passenger and freight trains share common tracks.

Darrell Wells, the freight engineer, and conductor Dean E. Tacoronte, jumped from the train moments before the crash, according to published reports. Tests for signs of alcohol were negative; results of drug tests were not expected until the end of the week.

Blakey said investigators were looking into the days before the crash to see if there were any contributing factors. "We want to look particularly at that 72-hour window before the crews came on duty to see what may have factored in in terms of their performance," she said.

The accident was the second serious train crash in the U.S. in less than one week, coming on the heels of a Florida train derailment that killed four people.

During her news conference, Blakey said the accident could have been avoided if a fully automated braking system had been in place similar to the system used in the Northeast.

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