Metrolink Commuter Crash: Who’s Really to Blame?

By Brian Schwartz

Veolia Transportation Engineer Robert Sanchez, along with 25 passengers was killed when the Los Angeles Metrolink train he was driving collided with a Union Pacific freight train. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) placed responsibility for the crash on engineer Sanchez who they charged was distracted by his text messaging and, as a result, failed to stop for a red stop signal.

An October 4, 2008 article from the Los Angeles Times interviewed three witnesses, one of whom was the station security guard; all claimed that Sanchez proceeded out of the station on a green signal light. This raises the possibility that the signal system itself gave engineer Sanchez a false indication. The possibility of false indications by the signal system is something that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), NTSB, and railroad companies don’t like to acknowledge. If it is a flawed system, then there is no fail-safe way for moving trains on single mainline tracks where traffic runs in both directions. So all parties involved have a strong vested interest in countering what the three credible witnesses described as a green signal indication allowing engineer Sanchez to depart.

Robert Sanchez: victim not criminal

Scapegoating Robert Sanchez’s text messaging before the collision has directed focus away from the real culprits who have put railroad employees and passengers into harm’s way. That is the reduction of crew size to one engineer. Having one engineer in the locomotive alone is like sending commercial jets into the sky with a single pilot. There is always the possibility that endless chains of green signals can lull engineers into a false sense of security that they have the right of way. In a tacit admission of this, Metrolink CEO David R. Solow is now placing two engineers in the control cab on some of the routes as an interim safety measure—probably until the scrutinizing heat is off.

Commuter rail service can make single engineer cabs especially dangerous. Commuter service needs many trains running in the morning rush hours, not much in the middle of the day then a lot of trains for evening rush hours. Railroad companies do not want to hire separate crews for the morning and evening rush hour. The result is a grueling split shift. An engineer could work four or five hours in the morning rush, be off duty four or five hours, then back on duty for the evening rush. Robert Sanchez was working just such a fatiguing split shift.

Railroad technology started taking off during the middle 1950s. Diesel locomotives did not require a fireman to shovel coal and wipe the soot off instrument dials inside the cab. Railroad executives saw the fireman’s position as a colossal waste of money, accusing the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers of featherbedding. (Featherbedding is an accusation made against unions who resist the elimination of jobs deemed unnecessary by the employer—especially upon the introduction of new technology.)

When it came down to a fight, rail workers realized that a fireman’s position helped train engineers on the job giving them vital hands-on experience running trains, an extra set of eyes and ears in the cab for reading signals and copying dispatcher orders governing train movement. Unfortunately rail unions did not put up a real fight to stop crew reductions.

Robert Sanchez was a member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, so we get his side of the story thanks to an article on the BLET website entitled, “Engineer’s Family Shoulders Profound Grief from Train Wreck” dated September 20, 2008:

“The last time Robert Sanchez visited his family less than a year ago he said he loved his Metro Link job despite a 53 hour workweek, split shift schedule that left him constantly tired. Sanchez told his mother, ‘When I get on a train, I forget everything and I’m totally focused.’”

Sixty engineers and conductors gathered at the Sanchez family home honoring his memory waiting for his ashes to come back from the mortuary.

Engineer Robert Sanchez loved railroading so much that when his own father died and the family gathered to decide where to scatter their father’s ashes, each of the siblings stated for the record where they would like their ashes to be scattered. Robert Sanchez wanted his ashes scattered across railroad tracks.

Fighting back

Rail Workers United is an inter-craft caucus of railroaders sick of concessionary bargaining along with the turf wars between the railroad union bureaucrats.

It is this organization’s hope that by organizing the rank and file of all railroad unions they can put an end to the inter-craft turf wars and the concessionary contracts imposed upon us by bureaucratic malfeasance. Unfortunately, Rail Workers United lacks a fundamental understanding that the U.S. Government stands directly behind the National Carriers Conference Committee. The NCCC is the umbrella organization for all the railroad companies. Its purpose is to impose concessionary contracts if bureaucratic chicanery fails.

So far the ranks of rail labor have knuckled under bureaucratic leadership rather than self-organize against them so that their unions can better contend with the NCCC at the negotiation table backed by an intention to strike.

Unfortunately the general mood in the railroad industry is to hold the fort and make it to retirement. Even with the pay cuts imposed by greater healthcare contributions, new hires come from jobs that paid less; where their previous employers forced them to contribute substantially more into their health and welfare plans.

But the drive by the rail companies for further crew cuts, further wage cuts and further speedups, continues. It is in this kind of an environment that Rail Workers United along with other class-struggle advocates in rail labor today will get an increasingly sympathetic hearing for their ideas against concessions and how to fight them.