Student engineer was operating train in California crash

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(Reuters) -- A student engineer was operating a Los Angeles-bound commuter train when it slammed into a pickup truck that had taken a wrong turn onto the tracks last month, killing one person and injuring 50, federal safety investigators said on Thursday.

The commuter train struck the Ford F-450 as it sat on the tracks in the community of Oxnard, about 45 miles west of Los Angeles, shortly before dawn on Feb. 24.

Three double-decker Metrolink rail cars were overturned and two others derailed but remained upright. The force of the impact ripped the truck apart and left burned-out chunks and twisted wreckage still smoldering hours later.

Engineer Glenn Steele, 62, died seven days later from injuries suffered in the wreck.

The truck's driver, Jose Alejandro Sanchez-Ramirez, was taken into custody on suspicion of hit-and-run after leaving the scene, but Ventura County prosecutors declined to file charges against him, saying that decision could be revisited at the conclusion of the crash investigation.

In a preliminary report released on Thursday, National Transportation Safety Board investigators said that Sanchez-Ramirez had intended to turn west onto 5th Street in Oxnard when he instead pulled onto the railroad right-of-way.

"After traveling approximately 80 feet west of the nearest curb line of S. Rice Avenue, the truck became lodged on the southernmost rail of the track," the NTSB report said.

Sanchez-Ramirez then abandoned the truck, leaving his driver's side door open, headlights on and emergency hazard lights flashing, according to the report.

The NTSB said that a student engineer was operating the train at the time, with Steele monitoring at his side in the cab-control car, and placed the train into emergency braking eight seconds before the collision.

The report, which will be supplemented or updated during the course of the investigation, does not find fault with either Steele or the unnamed student engineer.

The rail crossing where the accident took place had been identified as a transportation hazard and had been the scene of a fatal accident as recently as last year, officials have said.

Local lawmakers say federal funds are needed to build an overpass at the crossing, an idea first proposed over a decade ago with a price tag estimated at more than $30 million.

The crossing's hazards were not addressed in the NTSB's preliminary report.

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