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Metrolink collision: Why was a pickup truck on the tracks?

A Metrolink commuter train was derailed by a Ford F-450 pickup on the tracks in Oxnard, Calif. Eight people were admitted to the hospital of the 30 people originally examined, officials said. Four were in critical condition, including the train's engineer.

Federal investigators were trying to determine why a driver abandoned his pickup truck on railroad tracks in Southern California, triggering a fiery crash with a commuter train that derailed three cars and injured dozens.

"It was not stuck, it was not bottomed out on the track or something like that," National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt said at a media briefing late Tuesday at the crash site in Oxnard, about 65 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles.

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Officials had said immediately after the crash that the driver got stuck on the tracks before dawn.

"We're very concerned about that, we're very interested in it," he said, adding that both the badly wrecked truck's emergency brake and high-beams headlights were on.

Eight people were admitted to the hospital of the 30 people originally examined, officials said. Four were in critical condition, including the train's engineer.

The truck driver, Jose Alejandro Sanchez-Ramirez, 54, of Yuma, Arizona, was found about a half-mile away 45 minutes later, said Jason Benites, an assistant chief of the Oxnard Police Department.

Police said they tested Sanchez-Ramirez for drugs and alcohol but they would not discuss the results.

He was briefly hospitalized then arrested Tuesday afternoon on suspicion of felony hit-and-run, Benites said.

His Ford F-450 pickup was pushed some 300 feet down the tracks and ended up on the other side of the rail crossing, Sumwalt said.

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Flames engulfed the truck, but investigators said the engine was intact and may offer clues about what happened.

Sumwalt said his team had already recovered video and data recorders from the train and were sending them to Washington for analysis.

The NTSB doesn't always investigate grade crossings, especially those with no fatalities, but this one was unusual enough to warrant it, Sumwalt said.

Passenger Joel Bingham, a railroad aficionado and frequent passenger, said many of those aboard the train were asleep and shocked awake when the loud boom first happened.

"It seemed like an eternity while we were flying around the train. Everything was flying," Bingham said. "A brush of death definitely came over me."

Bingham said the lights went out when the train fell over. He was banged up from head to toe but managed to find an escape for himself and others, many of whom had been asleep when the crash happened.

"I was just shaking," he said. "I opened the window and told everybody, 'Come to my voice.'"

Lives were likely saved by passenger cars designed to absorb a crash that were purchased after a deadly collision a decade ago, Metrolink officials said. The four passenger cars remained largely intact, as did the locomotive.

The NTSB planned to examine the effectiveness of those cars, Sumwalt said.

As The Christian Science Monitor reported, the state of California attempted to address rail safety directly following two deadly accidents in southern California. In 2005, 11 people were killed and 180 others injured after a commuter train crashed into an SUV on the track, causing the train to derail and collide with a freight train in Glendale. Then, three years later, a Metrolink train collided head on with a freight train, killing 25 people and injuring 135.

In the wake of the 2005 crash, the Southern California Regional Rail Authority launched a myriad of projects designed to improve grade crossings, to build safer cars and locomotives, and to use automatic train stops and onboard rail video cameras.

On Tuesday, the first train of the morning on the Ventura route, had just left its second stop of Oxnard on its way to downtown Los Angeles when it struck the truck around 5:45 a.m.

The engineer saw the abandoned vehicle and hit the brakes, but there wasn't enough time to stop, Oxnard Fire Battalion Chief Sergio Martinez said.

One patient described how he had been working on his laptop and a moment later there was a sudden jerking motion that happened so quickly he wasn't able to grab hold of anything, said Dr. Bryan Wong, chief medical officer at Ventura County Medical Center. He was violently tossed against a wall of the train.

The train typically would be accelerating out of the Oxnard station past verdant farm fields at about 55 mph, Metrolink spokesman Scott Johnson said. With braking, he estimated it would have hit the truck at between 40 mph and 55 mph.

The crossing has been the scene of many crashes over the years.

After one killed 11 people and injured 180 others in Glendale in 2005, Metrolink invested heavily in passenger cars with collapsible bumpers and other features to absorb impact.

Metrolink spokesman Jeff Lustgarten said the Oxnard crash showed the technology worked.

"Safe to say it would have been much worse without it," he said.

There have been six accidents at the crossing in the past seven years, including one that killed two people last year when a car struck an Amtrak train.

Tuesday's crash happened on the same line as Metrolink's worst disaster, which left 25 people dead on Sept. 12, 2008. A commuter train engineer was texting and ran a red light, striking a Union Pacific freight train head-on in the San Fernando Valley community of Chatsworth. More than 100 people were hurt in what was one of the worst railroad accidents in U.S. history.

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Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers John Antczak, Justin Pritchard and Sue Manning in Los Angeles; Amy Taxin in Tustin, California; and Alina Hartounian in Phoenix.

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