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Cellphone ban imposed on all train operators

Times Staff Writer

The Federal Railroad Administration on Thursday issued an emergency order that prohibits all train operators from using cellphones while on duty, a rule that comes years after the agency first considered the matter and two weeks after the California Public Utilities Commission imposed the same restriction.

The order also comes one day after the National Transportation Safety Board issued a preliminary report saying that text messages were sent and received by Metrolink engineer Robert M. Sanchez’s cellphone in the moments before his commuter train collided with a Union Pacific freight train Sept. 12, killing 25 people and injuring 135 others.

“Everyone involved with rail travel deserves the full attention and focus of train operators, without exception and without excuse,” the Federal Railroad Administration said in a statement.

The order contains a list of recent train accidents that involved cellphone use. One of those was an incident this summer in which a Union Pacific brakeman walked across tracks while talking on his cellphone and was hit and killed by a train. Another involved a 2006 head-on collision in Texas between two Union Pacific freight trains. The Federal Railroad Administration later determined that the engineer on one of those trains was inattentive and talking on his phone.

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As recently as two weeks ago, a Federal Railroad Administration spokesman said the agency was merely continuing to study the issue and that cellphone use by train engineers already was banned by railroads. He also noted that a ban would be difficult to enforce.

“Think, as a practical matter, how an FRA inspector would actually catch an engineer with a cellphone,” Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Rob Kulat wrote to a Times reporter. “The engineer would have to be on the phone with the phone in his right hand as he’s passing an FRA inspector who just happens to be there. It’s a highly unlikely scenario.”

Kulat said the Federal Railroad Administration has only 270 inspectors to watch over the nation’s train traffic, and that having them be responsible for cellphone enforcement would “divert scarce resources into an area that is a problem only on a rare, an exceptional occasion.”

The Federal Railroad Administration, however, reversed course Thursday.

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steve.hymon@latimes.com


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