LOS ANGELES — Federal investigators worked today to unravel the commuter train collision with a freight locomotive that killed at least 25 people and injured 135, urging caution as a transit company blamed its own engineer for the horrific accident.
National Transportation Safety Board officials said it was too early to establish the cause of Friday’s accident. Others, too, questioned the timing of the operator’s move to affix culpability.
Metrolink announced Saturday that its preliminary investigation determined the engineer failed to heed a red signal light, leading to the collision with a Union Pacific freight train. The Metrolink engineer was among the dead, the NTSB said. His name has not been released.
NTSB spokesman Terry Williams said today that 11 investigators were at work, some of them picking through wreckage — inspecting the tracks, the equipment and the train signals — while others interviewed a Metrolink dispatcher. He said he didn’t know if they were also talking to four surviving train crew members.
Williams said he couldn’t confirm reports that the engineer was text messaging shortly before the crash, but said investigators would look into it.
A local television station reported that the engineer had exchanged a brief text message with a teenager. KCBS said the teen was among a group of rail fans who befriended the engineer and asked him questions about his work.
Williams couldn’t say if the federal investigators would interview the teens.
“We’re going to look into that, anything that can help us find the cause of this accident,” he said.
Metrolink spokeswoman Denise Tyrrell said she would consider it “unbelievable” that an engineer would be text message while operating a train.
Part of the railroad’s safety system involves a series of signals that tell engineers whether the path ahead is clear. According to Metrolink, the engineer missed a stop signal shortly before the accident site — the last of three that would have warned another train was ahead on a single stretch of track. In that area, trains going both ways share track that winds through a series of narrow tunnels.
The NTSB did not rule out Metrolink’s theory but will complete its witness interviews and review of evidence — which could take a year — before announcing conclusions.
NTSB member Kitty Higgins said rescue teams on Saturday recovered two data recorders from the Metrolink train and one data recorder and one video recorder from the freight train. The video has pictures from forward-looking cameras and the data recorders have information on speed, braking patterns and whether the horn was used.
The passenger train was believed to have been traveling about 40 mph.
The collision occurred on a horseshoe-shaped section of track near a 500-foot-long tunnel underneath Stoney Point Park in the San Fernando Valley. There is a siding at one end of the tunnel where one train can wait for another to pass.
Higgins noted that a pair of switches that control whether a train goes onto the siding were open. One of them should have been closed, she said.
“The indication is that it was forced open,” possibly by the Metrolink train, she said.
The Metrolink train, heading from downtown Los Angeles to Ventura County, was carrying 220 passengers, one engineer and a conductor, and the freight train had a crew of three.