House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Subcommittee on Rail, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials

Press Release

By:  Elton Gallegly
Date: March 17, 2011
Location: Washington, DC

I would first like to extend my thanks to full Committee Chairman Mica and Subcommittee Chairman Shuster, as well as Ranking Member Brown for inviting me to testify at this hearing this morning. I also greatly appreciate all of you inviting one of my constituents, Mackenzie Souser, to testify with me here today.

Mr. Chairman, on September 12, 2008, a Metrolink commuter train and a Union Pacific freight train collided near Chatsworth, California, resulting in 25 deaths and more than 150 injuries, many of which were catastrophic. This was the worst train accident in California history. Since the Metrolink train was heading in the direction of Ventura County, which I represent, most of those killed or injured were my constituents.

Although there is ongoing litigation related to this matter, an extensive investigation conducted by the NTSB found that the operator of the Metrolink system, Veolia Transportation, had a culture of ignoring risk and accepting rule-breaking from the locomotive engineer who was driving the train.

Here are some of the relevant facts related to the Chatsworth-Metrolink tragedy:

* Robert Sanchez, the engineer who was driving the train at the time of the crash, had already been cited in 2006 for having his cell phone on while operating a train. This violation of written rules put Veolia on notice regarding Sanchez's cell phone usage while he was on duty.
* And only about one month before the collision, the conductor on Mr. Sanchez's train saw Mr. Sanchez using his cell phone and reminded him that he was in violation of the rules. The conductor reported this violation to a supervisor. However, no formal or informal action was taken against Mr. Sanchez to stop his cell phone usage.
* On the very day of the crash, just before the afternoon train runs began, the same conductor called another conductor, asking his advice about stopping Mr. Sanchez from this dangerous texting conduct since Veolia management had done nothing to stop it. The other conductor advised him to ask a union officer the next day to intercede with Veolia's management.
* Despite this knowledge of cell phone use by Mr. Sanchez, in the weeks leading up to the crash Mr. Sanchez sent between 25 and 180 text messages per day while on duty. Many of these text messages were sent by Sanchez while he was driving the train. This poster shows the text messages sent or received by Mr. Sanchez on the day of the collision and the 8 prior days. Please note that on the very day of the crash, Sanchez sent or received a total of 43 text messages while operating the train, including 13 during his shift on the afternoon of the crash.
* On the afternoon of the tragedy, Mr. Sanchez failed to call out signals or control the speed of the train as required by written rules. Mr. Sanchez also ran, over the speed limit, past a red signal a mile after leaving the Chatsworth train station at the same time as he was sending a text message.
* Twenty-two seconds later, in a blind curve and without any warning, the Metrolink train hit a freight train traveling over 40 MPH head-on, derailing the lead locomotives and jamming the Metrolink locomotive backwards inside most of the first passenger car. In an instant, close to 200 people were killed or injured.

Mr. Chairman, I refuse to call what happened on September 12, 2008, an accident. This was a tragedy, but it was not an accident and it could have been prevented.

For the victims and family members, the tragedy of September 12, 2008, has been compounded by a federal law which limits all damages related to all claims arising from a passenger railroad accident to be capped at $200 million.

This federal cap on all damages, which was included in the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act of 1997, states that "the aggregate allowable awards to all rail passengers against all defendants for all claims" arising from a single accident cannot exceed $200 million.

In fact, in the Chatsworth tragedy, a respected, retired California Supreme Court Judge evaluated the damages caused to the victims and concluded that a fair settlement for the victims would be two to three times the amount of the liability cap.

Mr. Chairman, the Chatsworth tragedy has devastated 180 families in my Congressional district. For this reason, I have called upon the executives of Veolia to step up and at least cover the real damages -- not punitive damages -- but the real damages caused by this tragedy.

Veolia is the largest transportation company in the world. They operate rail systems that are subsidized by taxpayers throughout the United States. Both public transportation entities and the American public at large count on Veolia to operate safe transportation systems and act like responsible corporate citizens.

I therefore call on Veolia to take responsibility for the devastation they have caused and do the right thing by these people who have lost so much through no fault of their own.

Again, thank you for allowing me to testify here this morning.