RT investigating runaway light-rail train

A mistake by a maintenance technician last week led to a Sacramento Regional Transit light-rail train like the one pictured speeding dramatically and briefly derailing before losing power and stopping on its own, transit officials say.
A mistake by a maintenance technician last week led to a Sacramento Regional Transit light-rail train like the one pictured speeding dramatically and briefly derailing before losing power and stopping on its own, transit officials say. Sacramento Bee file

Sacramento Regional Transit officials say a dangerous runaway light-rail train in North Sacramento last week was caused by a maintenance technician who mistakenly disabled a safety feature on the train, setting it in motion unmanned and unoccupied.

The rogue vehicle ran through three active light-rail stations and several street crossings on a 1.5-mile, four-minute journey before gliding to a halt near Del Paso Boulevard.

RT officials say there were no reported close calls with waiting passengers at those stations, and no injuries. The automatic crossing arms, bells and flashing lights at intersections and stations worked properly, alerting drivers and pedestrians to the approaching train, officials said, but they are calling the incident very serious, and have engaged with state and federal rail safety officials in an investigation.

The incident, which took place on Tuesday, Feb. 17, just before 5 p.m., was the first instance of a runaway train in the agency’s 28-year light-rail history, RT Chief Operating Officer Mark Lonergan said.

In a press briefing Thursday afternoon, Lonergan said the technician was trying to find the cause of an electrical fault on the train. He had stepped off the train, which was sitting on a spur track in a maintenance yard, to check an outside panel, when the train took off, according to Lonergan.

The train almost immediately sped up to 43 miles per hour, according to an onboard computer. Before leaving the maintenance yard southbound, a few hundred yards north of El Camino Avenue, the train ran through a track switch. The switch caused one of the three sets of wheels to derail. That set of wheels re-railed moments later when it hit the edge of the Swanston light-rail station platform, agency officials said. The train at that point was going an estimated 30 miles per hour, Lonergan said.

The train passed through the Royal Oaks station, slowed to walking speed through the Arden/Del Paso light-rail station and stopped just west of there.

Lonergan said the switch at the end of the maintenance yard apparently jostled the light-rail car enough to dislodge its rooftop pole, or pantograph, which connects to overhead wires to provide electrical power. That caused the train to begin losing power at that point. Lonergan said it is hard to speculate what would have happened had the pantograph stayed in place, but he said the train might have derailed completely somewhere along the line because of its speed, possibly on a sweeping turn south of Arden Way and east of Evergreen Street.

Officials said the technician had been running the train back and forth on the maintenance yard tracks while doing troubleshooting. The technician then took several actions to keep the train engaged, including wedging a screwdriver onto a kill switch to keep it open, and exited the train to inspect a control panel on the outside of the train.

RT officials said they are cooperating with the California Public Utilities Commission and the National Transportation Safety Board in an investigation of the incident. Agency officials said they have already taken steps to prohibit workers from disabling safety features. They said they plan to add more safeguards based on the findings of the investigation in the next 30 days.

“Safety is absolutely the No. 1 concern,” RT General Manager Mike Wiley said. “This is a serious incident, and we are grateful that this incident was contained to RT property damage.”

Wiley and Lonergan said the technician radioed a controller, frantically, to report the train had taken off. Lonergan said that message came in confused.

“We were trying to figure out what he actually meant,” Lonergan. “It took a bit of time before before the controller realized there was a real anomalous situation going on.”

The controller immediately checked to see if there were any trains with passengers in the path of the rogue train, but there were none in the immediate area, Lonergan said. The event happened so quickly that the controller did not have time to alert officials down the line, although RT employees monitoring the radio heard the report.

“It was over before we had the opportunity to notify anybody,” Lonergan said.

Call The Bee’s Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059.

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