Witnesses: Doomed train had green light

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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Two railfans and a security officer who were at the Metrolink station in Chatsworth, California on the afternoon of Friday, September 12, when Metrolink Train 111 collided with an oncoming freight train, say the train had received a green signal just before the collision. The witness accounts were published in a recent Los Angeles Times article. The wreck killed 25 passengers and injured dozens more.

The accounts, if true, contradict the preliminary findings of officials investigating the crash, who have said that a red light was ignored. It was estimated that 350-400 passengers were aboard the Metrolink train when it crashed.

Firefighters stand near a locomotive on September 12, 2008 after Metrolink Train 111 collided with a Union Pacific freight train near Chatsworth, California.
Image: Craig Wiggenhorn.

The signal in question is located about a mile from the Chatsworth train station but, according both to witnesses and to investigators, is clearly visible from the station platform. One of the civilian witnesses, a railfan, was expecting the oncoming freight train, but says that when he looked at the signal to see whether the train engineer had an indication to proceed or not, he saw that it was green. A few days later, both he and the other civilian witness told a Federal investigator what they had seen. According to an expert interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, false green railway signals are an extremely rare event, but they do occur.

It is not uncommon for eyewitness reports to disagree with each other or to be unreliable. However, in this case, the accounts of three witnesses agree with each other, and one of the witnesses is a professional security guard. It is not known whether there are other witnesses who disagree with the three.

Federal investigators have been focusing their investigation on cellphone records, which show that the engineer of the ill-fated Metrolink 111 commuter train had been sending and receiving text messages, including one only 22 seconds before the crash. They also conducted extensive tests of the signaling system. The signaling system functioned normally during the tests, and computer records show that the signal in question had been red immediately prior to the collision.

Federal regulations require railroads to notify the Federal Railroad Administration any time that a false signal to proceed is known to have occurred. A number of different conditions can cause false proceed signals, including communication circuit failures, wiring errors or, more rarely, software bugs. In one instance, such a design flaw on an Amtrak line went undetected for nearly 35 years.

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