Metrolink conductor raised concerns about engineer’s cellphone use

The only Metrolink crew member to survive the Chatsworth rail disaster told federal investigators that he had previously complained to a supervisor about improper on-duty cellphone use by the engineer who crashed the commuter train, the crew member’s attorney said Thursday.

Conductor Robert Heldenbrand recently told investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board that he saw engineer Robert M. Sanchez using a cellphone during a Metrolink station stop “a couple of months” before the Sept. 12 collision that killed 25 people and injured 135, said San Dimas attorney John Gilbert, who attended the formal interview.

Two days before the head-on collision with a freight train, Heldenbrand asked the same supervisor whether he had addressed the issue, Gilbert said. The supervisor said he was planning to take care of the problem, according to the attorney.

Heldenbrand “didn’t like the use of cellphones. . . . He told a supervisor it wasn’t proper for the operating person to be using a cellphone,” Gilbert said.

The disclosure suggests that investigators are focusing in part on how diligently Metrolink and a contractor that provides the public rail service’s train crews enforced a ban on cellphone use.

The conductor was summoned to the NTSB’s Gardena offices two weeks ago after investigators heard of his complaints from another employee.

A spokesperson for Veolia Transportation, whose subsidiary Connex Railroad LLC provides Metrolink crews, declined to comment, citing the ongoing NTSB investigation.

While on duty the day of the crash, Sanchez sent and received 57 text messages, including one just 22 seconds before impact, federal authorities have said. Their preliminary findings show that Sanchez -- who was killed in the crash -- failed to stop at a red light just before hitting the Union Pacific freight train after two tracks merged into a single line just beyond the signal

Just how visible that warning signal was remains one of the disputed details surrounding the worst train crash in modern California history.

The Times reported late last year that Heldenbrand and three witnesses said the light was actually green -- meaning the engineer didn’t have to stop the train. Based on tests performed after the crash, federal investigators said they still believe it was red. However, another Times report quoted one investigator as saying that the red light was not as bright as the green and yellow lights on the same track-side signal pole.

Heldenbrand met with NTSB investigators about two weeks after the crash but was not asked about the earlier cellphone incident or his report to the supervisor, Gilbert said. In his follow-up interview, the conductor told investigators that he saw Sanchez using a cellphone only once while on duty, the attorney said.

It is unclear what, if any, action was taken between Heldenbrand’s initial complaint and the crash of Metrolink 111. Connex discipline records obtained by The Times for the eight months before the collision show that Sanchez was not written up for any violations of operating rules.

Heldenbrand never confronted Sanchez directly about his cellphone use. But he recounted the sequence of events for the NTSB, Gilbert said.

Heldenbrand was in a passenger car when the collision occurred. While recovering from injuries at the hospital, he saw the supervisor again, Gilbert said.

“The supervisor said he had addressed it . . . but the supervisor didn’t indicate when he addressed it” or how, the attorney said.

The morning of the crash, Heldenbrand recounted his complaint to the supervisor with a fellow conductor, Gilbert said. It was that employee who alerted the NTSB about Heldenbrand’s concerns, the attorney said.

The NTSB’s wide-ranging, multi-agency probe is expected to take months to complete. The safety board and Metrolink have declined to comment on developments in the ongoing investigation.

Heldenbrand’s comments to the NTSB echo allegations made last month by attorneys representing victims of the Chatsworth crash. They allege that Connex had received complaints before the collision that Sanchez was using his cellphone on duty, but failed to do anything about it. The attorneys based their allegations on comments of an employee they refused to identify.