Truck driver fatigue cited in California train crash

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Acute fatigue and lack of familiarity with the area likely caused the driver of a work truck to turn onto train tracks where the vehicle and its trailer were struck by a Southern California commuter train, killing the engineer and injuring dozens more last year, federal investigators said Monday.

The truck driver had been on duty for nearly 24 hours, including nearly 17 hours traveling from Somerton, Arizona, to a work site in Oxnard, California, according to the National Transportation Safety Board's final report on the accident.

The 5:44 a.m. crash on Feb. 24, 2015, also injured 32 Metrolink passengers and train crew members.

Earlier this year, Ventura County prosecutors filed a misdemeanor charge of vehicular manslaughter against the truck driver, Jose Alejandro Sanchez-Ramirez, a farm equipment repairman from Yuma, Arizona.

His attorney has said Sanchez-Ramirez made repeated attempts to get the vehicle off the rails, then ran for his life as the train approached out of fear that fuel he used to power tools might cause an explosion.

The truck driver had gone on duty in Somerton on Feb. 23 at 5:51 a.m. and began his trip to Oxnard at 1 p.m., using written directions and a cellphone navigation application for what was estimated to be a six-hour, 350-mile trip, the NTSB said.

Radiator damage that required getting a replacement truck caused a 4½-hour delay in Jacumba, California, and another delay occurred when the truck was sideswiped by another vehicle in Los Angeles around 1:30 a.m. on Feb. 24.

The accident occurred 65 miles northwest of Los Angeles in an area where commercial and residential developments abruptly give way to agricultural fields.

Sanchez-Ramirez was heading south down an avenue intending to turn at the next intersection. But he mistakenly made a right turn onto tracks 57 feet north of the cross-street. The rail crossing was marked with signals and gates, although they were not activated because the train was not yet approaching.

The NTSB report said that at the time the navigation application did not include information on rail crossings. If it had, the driver "would have been less likely to misinterpret the visual cues and mistakenly turn" onto the tracks while approaching the intersection, the report said.

The report said that various companies have agreed to incorporate such data from the Federal Railroad Administration into mapping and navigation applications, although timelines for doing so are uncertain.

The Federal Railroad Administration informed the NTSB last June that it was reviewing its information on crossings for accuracy and expected to have it ready for integration by the end of the year, the report noted.

The truck traveled about 80 feet down the tracks before it became stuck. The NTSB report said that at some point the driver got out, attempted to push the truck off the track and tried to call 911 but failed because he was in a panic. The truck was left with its headlights and hazard lights on and a door open.

Analysis of GPS data from the driver's cellphone found that about 12 minutes elapsed between the time the truck got stuck and the train hit it, the report said.

The train, crewed by an engineer, student engineer and conductor was carrying 51 passengers on an early weekday run east to Los Angeles. The student engineer at the controls spotted the obstruction about a quarter-mile from the crossing and the crash occurred 8 seconds after he began emergency braking.

The NTSB said a test showed the truck was visible from a distance of more than a half-mile but the headlights of approaching highway traffic converged with the truck's lights. This "masking" might have made it difficult for the student engineer to comprehend the hazard, the report said.

The cab car — a passenger carriage with operator controls at the front — and three coach cars derailed while the locomotive at the rear stayed on the tracks.

The principal engineer, Glenn Steele, 62, was badly injured and died a week later. He had been the longest-serving engineer for Metrolink, a Southern California regional railroad.