I personally doubt it was either operator error or mechanical failure. I actually think this was a software problem with the system. I believe the ride cascaded (backed-up) into zone 7 (the zone just before the picture is taken) and the train was captured and released too early. It also might not have been captured at all.
Jim, who claims to be a former ride operator for California Screamin’, has a few ideas about what might have happened.
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OC Reg story says:
There was no word from investigators as to the cause of the crash. However, some passengers reported that the purple coaster stopped about 20 to 30 feet from the docking station because an empty car was blocking the tracks.
Passengers including Bromagen reported that while the purple car sat waiting for the car in front of it to move, the red coaster came racing down the tracks and rear-ended the second car at what one passenger described as speeds approaching 35 mph.
Judging from the photos on the KNBC.com site, I think they have their colors mixed up (but that’s understandable if you’ve just been in an accident). The purple train was the train that ran into the back of the red train. The red train could not have been empty or the injuries would have been a lot less (24 instead of 48).
This is speculation, but I suppose it is possible that the red train was stopped where it was because they were bringing an empty train onto the tracks. But either the red train was stopped at the wrong braking zone, there is one more brake zone before the switch back to the barn, or there were trains in each of the last brake zones before the switch/loading station zones.
In any event, the fifth train, the purple one, should not have have come within one brake zone of the stopped red train. An e-stop should have automatically been triggered when it passed the brake zone two zones prior. There should be no way for an operator to override this, it should happen automatically. So I think this points to a software error.