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Attorneys blame company in deadly train crash
Published: October 3rd 2008
Source: San Francisco Chronicle
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Warning grieving families and injured passengers still reeling from last month's deadly Metrolink train crash to think about the future, attorneys are laying the groundwork for litigation stemming from the head-on collision that killed 25 people.

At two town-hall meetings Tuesday inside a Simi Valley hotel, lawyers spoke for two hours about a bullish corporate culture fueling the operator of Southern California's commuter rail system that they say leads to unsafe practices.

Metrolink officials knowingly send out trains with mechanical defects and encourage engineers to exceed speed limits and fudge record-keeping, all to avoid being late and reap lucrative financial bonuses for arriving on time, the attorneys said.

"Their chief concern is not what it should be," attorney R. Edward Pfiester Jr. said. "And that's the safety of their passengers."

His Los Angeles-based law firm, which set up public meetings Tuesday and Saturday, has represented people from Metrolink train crashes in Placentia in 2002 and Glendale in 2005.

"Our No. 1 concern is the safety of our passengers," said Francisco Oaxaca, Metrolink spokesman, who did not attend the meeting Tuesday.

He refused to comment on claims of unsafe practices and a competitive system of bonuses doled out to train employees and middle management for keeping trains on time.

Attorneys at Tuesday's meeting spoke before a crowd of about 25 - mainly residents curious for information about the crash and other lawyers seeking plaintiffs.

One woman in the crowd sat sobbing between her parents, still traumatized by the Sept. 12 collision between a Metrolink passenger train and a Union Pacific freight train that killed her husband.

Lawyers for the firm shooed reporters away from victims in the crowd and asked news photographers to respect their privacy and not take photos.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is the other public entity likely to be listed as a defendant in the lawsuits because it owns the tracks, track structure and signals where the passenger train operated in Chatsworth, attorney Anthony Petru said.

Other defendants could include Veolia Environmental, which contracts with Metrolink to provide engineers and conductors; Mass Electric Construction Co., Herzog Cos., Union Pacific and Bombardier, the Canadian designer and manufacturer of passenger cars.

Federal investigators are looking into the cause of the crash. On Wednesday, they said the Metrolink engineer, Robert Sanchez, sent a cell phone text message 22 seconds before his commuter train crashed head-on into the freight train.

Cell phone records of Sanchez, who was among the dead, show he received a text message a minute and 20 seconds before the crash, and sent one about a minute later, the National Transportation Safety Board said.

The finding led Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Boardman to announce that an emergency order will be issued prohibiting use of personal electronic devices by rail workers operating trains and in other key jobs. California regulators have already enacted a ban in response to the disaster.

Investigators are looking into why Sanchez ran through a red signal before the accident on a curve in the San Fernando Valley community of Chatsworth. The time of the final text suggests it is unlikely he had become incapacitated for some reason.



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