CPUC bans cellphone use by train operators

The CPUC approved the regulation at its meeting in Los Angeles today, making permanent an interim emergency order issued in September 2008.

That emergency order banned the use of cellphones by operators after a train collision killed 25 people in Chatsworth, an area north of Los Angeles, earlier that month and an injury collision between two San Francisco Municipal Railway light-rail vehicles near AT&T Park in June 2008.

CPUC investigations found that both crashes were likely caused in part by train operators using their cellphones just prior to impact.

In October 2008, the Federal Railroad Administration also adopted an emergency order banning the use of cellphones and similar items by rail transit operators.

While some transit agencies operating in the Bay Area, including Caltrain and Amtrak, are covered by the federal policy, others like BART, Muni, and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority are under the state's authority.

The regulation passed by the CPUC today expands the cellphone prohibition to all wireless or portable electronic devices, and also requires the installation of inward-facing cameras to make sure train operators are following the rule.

Spokespeople for the Bay Area agencies under the CPUC's jurisdiction said they each already have a similar restriction in effect.

"It's currently policy that our operators are not to use cellphones while they're operating vehicles," Muni spokesman Paul Rose said, while BART spokesman Jim Allison and VTA spokeswoman Brandi Childress said their agencies also have strict prohibitions in place.

Nevertheless, CPUC officials said requiring agencies to install the cameras in the cabs of trains will increase the safety of rail crews and passengers by ensuring effective enforcement of the cellphone policy.

The order to install the cameras in the train cabs is the first of its kind in the nation, providing a new level of accountability, according to the CPUC. Agencies have three years to install the cameras.

The rule specifies that video recordings from the cameras must be reviewed as part of a regular compliance program, not just after an accident. It also institutes a zero-tolerance program, with consequences for operators including possible discharge from their position.

BART and VTA currently do not have the cameras installed on their trains. Muni has similar cameras installed on its buses but not yet on its light-rail vehicles.

"The CPUC is sending a clear message today to operators tempted by the attraction of cell phone use: it's not worth it -- you will be held accountable," Commissioner Mike Florio said today.

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