NTSB report: Both light-rail trains had approval to be on track before August crash

Federal investigators have released their initial findings regarding a Sacramento light-rail crash that sent more than a dozen people to the hospital in August, but the investigation remains ongoing as officials work to determine what caused the rare incident.

The collision involved a two-car Sacramento Regional Transit passenger train, carrying 24 people, striking a one-car RT maintenance train, with three occupants, at about 9:38 p.m. on Aug. 22. The crash occurred on the N line, on a remote stretch of track near north Sacramento’s Hagginwood neighborhood.

Thirteen people were hospitalized with minor to moderate injuries, as reported by RT.

The National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday released its first preliminary report for the incident, which does not name a cause or probable cause for the collision, but says that all 27 occupants suffered non-life-threatening injuries of some kind.

Investigators determined the passenger train was traveling 32 mph when it struck the maintenance train, which was stationary, according to the NTSB report. Light-rail passenger and maintenance trains each have a max speed of 55 mph, according to the RT website.

Prior to the collision, a technician on the maintenance train requested and received permission from the metro control center to use the in-service mainline track to “complete postmaintenance intervention propulsion testing,” according to the report.

The passenger train and the maintenance train were both initially traveling northbound on the outbound track, away from Sacramento’s metro control center. The latter train accelerated up to 50 mph before stopping, the NTSB preliminary report said.

Then, the technician reversed the maintenance train’s direction, beginning to head south, according to the report:

“The technician then reversed ends and began operating southbound on the outbound track. Meanwhile, passenger train No. 9 was moving northbound on the outbound track toward maintenance LRV No. 310.”

The report does not say how fast the maintenance train traveled after it switched to the southbound direction, or how soon before the collision it came to a stop, but the report does indicate it was fully stopped when it was hit by the passenger train, which was still heading north.

The report notes that “extra train movements were verbally authorized to occupy the main track” while “(r)egulary scheduled train movements were governed by signal indication.”

In other words, the maintenance car took verbal directions from RT’s control center as it entered the main track for its testing, as the passenger car proceeded on its path in accordance with light signals.

“The territory was under RT Metro control with the radio operator located in the control center,” the report adds.

A passenger, Marian Noriega, told The Sacramento Bee in late August that the incident happened en route to the Watt Avenue-Interstate 80 station and appeared to happen without warning and without apparent braking, knocking passengers to the floor.

Noriega provided a brief video she took of the crash. The video did not show the operator, who has not been identified, but recorded his voice.

“By the time I realized he was on my track it was too late,” the operator is heard saying in the video.

The NTSB preliminary report does not indicate whether the metro control center transmitted radio communications to the passenger train operator to warn of the stopped maintenance train.

Later in Noriega’s video, a passenger asks him if he is OK. He responds: “Luckily, a lot more OK than I thought I was going to be. 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.”

Noriega told The Bee that the lights went out and the passenger train became “tilted.” The NTSB report says neither train was derailed by the collision.

The passenger train “was operating about 15 minutes behind its designated schedule” on the day of the accident, according to the NTSB report.

Federal, state, local and RT officials have declined to comment on the crash. But the California Public Utilities Commission on Aug. 28 sent RT a letter ordering the agency to stop testing in-maintenance trains on tracks that are in service and to ensure that a supervisor is in the light rail control center at all times “so that a single person is not dispatching and controlling trains simultaneously.”

RT said in an email to The Bee last month that it had implemented the changes mandated by the CPUC, but that it was unable to comment further until after the NTSB and CPUC investigations are complete.

The NTSB says it will continue its investigation with an emphasis “on rail operations of SacRT, signal system operations, the performance of SacRT employees, and management oversight of the property, both internal and external,” according to the report.

The August collision was the first collision involving two Sacramento light-rail trains since 1999, according to reporting by The Bee.

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Michael McGough anchors The Sacramento Bee’s breaking news reporting team, covering public safety and other local stories. A Sacramento native and lifelong capital resident, he interned at The Bee while attending Sacramento State, where he earned a degree in journalism.