Train engineer was texting just before California crash

Firefighter work to rescue victims after a Metrolink commuter train en route from Los Angeles' Union Station to Oxnard collided with a freight train in the Chatsworth area, September 12, 2008. REUTERS/Gus Ruelas

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The train driver blamed for the worst U.S. train crash in 15 years was sending and receiving text messages seconds before his crowded commuter train skipped a red light and collided head-on with a freight train, federal investigators said on Wednesday.

The Metrolink commuter train plowed into a Union Pacific freight locomotive on September 12 in Chatsworth, California, killing 25 people and injuring 135 in the worst train accident since 1993.

A National Transportation Safety Board probe has focused on whether the engineer, identified as Robert Martin Sanchez, 46, failed to heed trackside signals. Sanchez was killed in the crash.

Cell phone records show Sanchez was sent a text message at 4:22:01 p.m., and received one at 4:21:03 p.m. The accident occurred at 4:22:23 p.m., according to Union Pacific train’s onboard recorders.

He received seven and sent five text messages between 3:00 p.m. and the time of the accident.

Sanchez also received 21 text messages and sent 24 while he ran a train from 6:44 a.m. to 8:53 a.m.

Since the timings were not all recorded on a common platform, the precise correlation between the events is not clear, investigators at the NTSB said.

Local TV station KCBS reported that a teenager claimed to have received a text message from the Metrolink engineer a minute before the collision.

Following the accident, California authorities temporarily banned railroad workers from using cellphones on duty.

Reporting by Syantani Chatterjee; Editing by Peter Henderson and Sandra Maler