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NTSB: Driver apparently drove truck on tracks before Metrolink crash

Truck involved in Oxnard Metrolink crash was not stuck on the tracks. Driver had driven there, NTSB says

The truck involved in a Metrolink train derailment Tuesday morning in Oxnard that left dozens injured appears to have been traveling down the tracks just before the collision, an NTSB official said late Tuesday.

"It was not stuck, it was not bottomed out on the track or something like that," Robert Sumwalt, a National Transportation Safety Board member, told reporters.

The collision occurred about 80 feet west of the grade crossing where vehicles pass over the tracks, Sumwalt said, suggesting the truck driver had driven his Ford F-450 along some length of the tracks.

"We're very concerned about that, we're very interested in it," Sumwalt said. 

The five-car Metrolink was bound for downtown Los Angeles when it derailed at 5:42 a.m. There were no fatalities, but 28 of the 50 people involved were taken to hospitals with minor to critical injuries.

The impact of the crash sent the truck across the grade crossing, pushing it a total of about 300 feet.

The train was traveling at 79 mph through the darkened fields when the engineer saw a pickup truck on the tracks at 5th Street and Rice Avenue, authorities said. Seconds before colliding with the truck, he pulled the emergency brake.

Oxnard police had previously said the truck driver, Jose Alejandro Sanchez-Ramirez, 54, of Yuma, Ariz., was attempting to turn his 2005 Ford F-450 onto 5th Street when he instead pulled onto the railroad tracks and became stuck. The truck was pulling a trailer carrying equipment, including welding tools.

Police said they found Sanchez-Ramirez about a mile and a half from the crash, and arrested him on suspicion of felony hit-and-run involving multiple injuries.

The crash sent three of the Metrolink cars spilling onto the nearby gravel and adjacent street. At least four people were critically injured, including the train’s engineer.

In recent years, Metrolink has replaced almost all of its fleet of passenger cars with Rotem coaches, which represent the state-of-the-art in safety. The cars have crush zones, breakaway tables, improved emergency exits and seating arrangements that can reduce the risk of passengers being thrown into fixtures or each other in an accident.

The new passenger cars performed well in Tuesday's crash, officials said.

“The injuries came from people being tossed around,” said Keith Millhouse, mayor pro tem of Moorpark in Ventura County and a Metrolink board member. “The Rotem cars received very minor damage. They performed the way they should in terms of collision absorption. This could have been tremendously worse without them.”

Tuesday’s crash, however, is the fourth accident involving Metrolink trains that were pushed by locomotives from behind and controlled from the front by a lighter cab car, a passenger coach with an engineer’s station.

The practice, which is commonly used by commuter railroads, has been controversial. Some safety experts say that heavier locomotives might have a lower risk of derailment in crashes with motor vehicles on the tracks.

For breaking news in California, follow @Laura_Nelson, @MattHjourno, and @CMaiDuc.

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