Metrolink Demands Firings After NTSB Hearing

LOS ANGELES -- Metrolink officials demanded the removal of two top Connex employees in the wake of a hearing regarding the Sept. 12 train crash that killed 25 people.

The letter from Metrolink CEO David Solow was released Thursday, one day after investigators probing the collision criticized regulators for not doing a better job of keeping train operators from using cellular telephones while on duty.

Solow demanded the removal of "...current General Manager and Assistant General Manager, Tom McDonald and Gregg Konstanzer, respectively, from service on the Metrolink system," according to a Metrolink news release.

Connex is contracted by Metrolink. Metrolink can request removal of Connex personnel who provide services to the train operator, according to the news release.

The letter continues: "Metrolink only learned this week, when the NTSB first publicly released the information and during testimony by Connex representatives Tom McDonald, Gregg Konstanzer and Richard Dahl, that Mr. Robert Sanchez allowed unauthorized riders with whom he had been 'text messaging' to ride in the cab and operate the locomotive in his presence while under power."
The engineer of the Metrolink train, Sanchez, was blamed for running a red light just before the collision as he sent a text message to a teenage friend. Sanchez was twice warned about using his telephone while on duty.

On the final day of a two-day hearing, NTSB board member Kathryn Higgins, who heads the board of inquiry examining the catastrophe, said the enforcement of rules obviously was not working. Both the engineer of the Metrolink train and the conductor of the Union Pacific freighter sent a flurry of text messages on the day of the head-on collision.

The Metrolink engineer's final message -- sent within a minute of the collision -- was to one of a group of young rail enthusiasts whom he had befriended. At least one teenager had been allowed to ride in the locomotive and briefly "drive" the train, according to NTSB testimony.

Sanchez died in the crash.

The Union Pacific conductor, Kenneth Squires, who was in the locomotive with an engineer and was not operating the train, sent a text message just a little more than a minute before impact. His blood and urine also tested positive for marijuana use, according to NTSB investigators.

Doug Taylor of the Federal Railroad Administration called the regulation of text messaging by train operators "virtually unenforceable," adding that stiffer rules would only render enforceable rules less meaningful.

Metrolink officials announced, however, that they plan to install inward-facing video cameras in all of its locomotives and passenger cars to better monitor activity aboard trains.

"Our top priority is passenger safety," said Keith Millhouse, chairman of the Metrolink board. "We believe the installation of cameras in the control cabs of our trains will provide a significant deterrent to the type of activity revealed during the NTSB hearing.

"Authorization for the procurement and installation of the cameras was previously approved by our board and we are well on the way to having these cameras in operation," he said.

A union official testified at the hearing that the cheapest and fastest way to prevent another collision would be to put another railroad professional in the locomotive, countering proposals to put video camera on train operators.

"There are occasions where something's going to happen," William Walpert of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen told an investigative board in Washington, D.C. "A second set of eyes, in our opinion, would go a long way in preventing accidents."

Walpert said his union opposed the installation of inward-facing video cameras  because of privacy concerns.

Within hours of the crash, at least one of group of teenagers who were friendly with Sanchez contacted investigators and told them Sanchez was sending text messages just before the collision.

The NTSB has not said when a final report will be ready, but it is expected to be at least a couple of months.

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