California rail authorities demand immediate safety steps after Sacramento light rail crash

Video: ‘I thought ... I was just going to get smashed,’ light rail train operator says

The operator of the light rail train that ran into a maintenance car August 22, 2019, told riders minutes later there was nothing he could do to stop the crash, and that he thought he was going to be “smashed” when the trains hit, video shows..
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The operator of the light rail train that ran into a maintenance car August 22, 2019, told riders minutes later there was nothing he could do to stop the crash, and that he thought he was going to be “smashed” when the trains hit, video shows..

California’s top rail safety official has ordered the Sacramento Regional Transit district to stop “testing or troubleshooting” trains on live mainline tracks and to stop scheduling dispatchers to work alone in the control center doing several jobs at once.

The order came in a letter from the California Public Utilities Commission to SacRT after a light rail train carrying 24 people crashed into another train car in North Sacramento, injuring 13.

The National Transportation Safety Board and state PUC are investigating the crash, which occurred at 9:38 p.m. on Aug. 22. Three maintenance workers had taken a train car onto the in-service tracks a few hundred yards north of the maintenance yard on the mainline that heads north from the Swanston station to the Watt Avenue-Interstate 80 station.

The injuries reportedly were minor. The incident caused the service train to tilt and throw some passengers to the floor, a passenger told The Sacramento Bee. The train operator said he didn’t know the other train was on his tracks until the last minute.

“By the time I realized he was on my track it was too late,” the operator told passengers minutes after the crash according to an audio recording by a passenger. SacRT has not disclosed the operator’s identity.

Federal, state and local officials have declined to discuss the crash. The state PUC, however, sent SacRT a letter Aug. 28 ordering the transit agency to stop testing in-maintenance trains on tracks that are in service. It also ordered the local transit district to have a supervisor on duty in the light rail control center at all times “so that a single person is not dispatching and controlling trains simultaneously.”

CPUC’s statewide head of rail safety Roger Clugston ordered those changes, he said, “to address potential hazards we believe should be mitigated at once while we participate along with NTSB investigators to complete our investigation to determine all causal and contributory factors.”

Sacramento Regional Transit officials declined to discuss the CPUC requirements, but said in an email to The Bee that the agency had implemented them. “We are unable to make any additional comments on the incident until after the investigation is complete,” a spokeswoman said in an email.

SacRT earlier said it had been common practice for crews at the agency’s North Sacramento maintenance shop to take trains that are under repair out onto the mainline tracks north of the facility to test them.

The train in question that night was reportedly traveling behind schedule, which could have created confusion about the train’s location. The agency has a global positioning system technology that has been the subject of internal debate over its effectiveness. SacRT officials declined this week to describe how that system works or whether it was in use that night.

The August crash, one of the biggest in SacRT light rail history, occurred at normal traveling speed, which can range from under 20 miles per hour in busy areas up to 55 mph on open tracks away from traffic or intersections.

A passenger on the train, Marian Noriega, told The Bee the incident happened without warning and without apparent braking by the operator. She said the crash was violent enough to snap her head back and knock others over.

“It was so loud and so hard,” the North Highlands resident said. “The lights went out. The thing was tilted.”

Noriega said she looked back after the crash to see a Sacramento Regional Transit fare officer and another passenger on the floor.

The train operator was slightly injured in the incident. On the audio recording, a passenger asks him if he is OK.

“Luckily, a lot more OK than I thought I was going to be,” he says. “I thought for sure I was just going to get smashed. I’m glad the glass (windshield) went out instead of came in. I feel glass on my skin here and there.”

Photos of the train after the crash showed the windshield of the train pushed outward.

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Tony Bizjak has been reporting for The Bee for 30 years. He covers transportation, housing and development and previously was the paper’s City Hall beat reporter.