Federal investigators on scene of light rail crash in Sacramento that injured a dozen

Federal and state rail safety inspectors are on scene Friday morning at the site of a Sacramento Regional Transit light rail train crash in North Sacramento late Thursday that injured a handful of passengers.

A two-car passenger train carrying 24 crashed into single-car maintenance train, carrying three workers, that was stopped on the tracks a few hundred yards north of RT’s main maintenance yard in north Sacramento.

Thirteen people were transported to hospitals, including one RT employee who suffered a moderate injury to his leg, RT spokeswoman Devra Selenis said. Injuries appeared to be minor to moderate, and all were released from hospitals after treatment, she said.

Others aboard the commuter line, described as “walking wounded,” were treated at the scene and released, said Capt. Keith Wade, spokesman for the Sacramento Fire Department.

Federal inspectors from the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Transit Administration are on site, along with investigators from the California Public Utilities Commission.

The investigation is causing delays for some morning commuters who ride RT from the Watt Avenue-Interstate 80 station toward downtown. A bus bridge has been set up between the Watt/I-80 station in North Highlands and the Marconi-Arcade station, according to a service alert on Regional Transit’s website. Selenis said that the bus bridge would likely stay in place through Friday’s afternoon rush.

The incident occurred at 9:38 p.m., RT officials said. Three maintenance workers had taken a train car onto the in-service tracks a few hundred yards north of maintenance yard to do tests on it, Selenis said.

That train was struck by a northbound in-service train, at an unknown speed, causing the derailment and some moderate to light injuries.

Selenis said the agency and federal and state investigators are looking into whether the crash was caused by human error or a malfunction of the agency’s safety systems, including tracks signals.

Selenis said the agency’s maintenance staff at times takes out-of-service trains onto live tracks to do testing. She said investigators will review whether the proper notifications were issued, calling it “standard practice.”

The collision occurred in a dark and isolated area of rails parallel to Roseville Road and Del Paso Park where RT tracks cross Arcade Creek. The scene of the accident was between RT’s Winter Street station, where the tracks cross under Interstate 80 and into Sacramento city limits, and Marconi Avenue.

‘Sounded like a big crash’

Fifteen ambulances and more than 40 firefighters responded to the crash Thursday night. Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District crews, private ambulances and the Sacramento Police Department assisted in the incident.

Capt. Keith Wade of the Sacramento Fire Department said that firefighters were initially called to the scene for a “motor vehicle accident with a possible extrication” and came upon the train in a difficult area away from streets.

“The good thing here that we’re very happy that no one lost their life and that no one was in any critical condition,” Wade said.

In an open field west of the incident, the cars were seen upright and appeared to be on the tracks in two sets, separated by about 25 feet of rail, as riders were escorted to a staging area several yards away in the Hagginwood neighborhood of the city just before 10 p.m.

The trains remained on the track Friday morning. The operator’s front window could be seen out on one of the trains.

“Sounded like a big crash,” said Andrew Hernandez, who lives nearby. “We thought it was an accident (on the street). Then, we looked out and saw all the ambulances flying down the street.”

RT light rail crash history

The incident is the second major malfunction involving maintenance work on a light rail train in that area in the last four years.

In 2015, a maintenance technician in the yard mistakenly disabled a safety feature on a train, allowing that train to take off on its own on live tracks, and travel at speeds up to 40 miles per hour through three active light-rail stations and several street crossings on a 1.5-mile, four-minute journey before its wheels slipped off the rail causing it to glide to a halt near Del Paso Boulevard.

In 2008, an RT maintenance worker was killed just south of the maintenance yard when he was hit by a train while lubricating the tracks.

On Feb. 8, 1999, 30 people were injured in midtown when an RT train carrying passengers on a single-track bridge at 19th and R streets collided head-on with a disabled train that had been allowed to bypass a red signal light, according to previous reporting in The Sacramento Bee.

At the time, RT officials blamed the crash on an error by its radio control center to determine the location of the trains and the use of multiple radio channels by operators and maintenance personnel.

The agency released a statement Friday afternoon expressing concern. “SacRT is saddened for all that were impacted by the accident, but grateful that there were no serious injuries.”

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.
Daniel Hunt is The Sacramento Bee’s breaking news editor; he joined The Bee in 2013 from The Orange County Register and has worked in editing and design roles at newspapers in California and Delaware.