Fatal Train Crash Caused by Missed Signals, Federal Officials Say

In a hearing intended for fact-finding, rather than assigning blame, the National Transportation Safety Board has determined that a head on train collision that killed three people in June of last year was caused by one of the train’s failure to heed signals telling it to slow down and stop. The hearing included testimony from railroad, government, and labor union officials, as well as an accident reconstruction, which demonstrated that, despite being prompted twice to slow down and once to stop completely, one of the trains failed to apply its brakes until eight seconds before the collision took place.

The crash occurred on June 24, 2012 near Goodwell, Oklahoma, where an eastbound Union Pacific train smashed head on into another approaching from the opposite direction at high speed. The crash killed three of the four occupants aboard the two trains (one jumped from a train and survived) and sparked a fire that virtually welded the two machines into one mess of splintered debris. The NTSB confirmed after the crash that both trains had passed inspections the day before, and that all of the railway signals in the area were working properly. In total, the collision inflicted an estimated $15 million in damages.

Overall, Union Pacific saw a total of 95 registered signal violations over the last year, though the Oklahoma crash was the only instance of an accident as a result, according to the company’s vice president of safety, Robert Grimaila. In questioning with the NTSB panel, he explained that operators could face suspensions or other penalties as a result of such a violation. “We never want to see another accident like this happen again,” he added.

Jeff Young, an executive for the railroad company, also told the panel that they have already put more than a billion dollars into a complete safety system overhaul designed to better prevent accidents like this in the future. “People don’t appreciate the complexity of what we’re doing here,” he said. “This is a huge paradigm shift. The last thing we want to do is be back here with a collision that occurred because we weren’t vigilant in testing and operating this whole new control system. This system hasn’t even been field-tested yet.” It is optimistically estimated that the improvements could be in place by 2017.

“We need different techniques to take it down to the next level, to make railroads even safer,” Young added. Peer-to-peer safety programs were suggested alongside improved systems to reinforce that it is unacceptable to use cell phones or other distracting devices while operating a train. The NTSB said that no cell phones were found in the wreckage, though much of the scene was destroyed, and other train crashes in previous years have resulted from distracted operators whose heads were buried in their phones.

Dennis Pierce, a union official from the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, also told the NTSB panel that many railroad engineers suffer from “task overload”, having to familiarize themselves with new technologies and procedures will trying to operate their trains at the same time. “It’s obvious to most of us there are limitations on how many tasks a human being can safety accomplish, and engineers must multitask more than ever before … under intense scrutiny,” says Pierce. For improvements to be made and accidents like this to be avoided into the future, more capable safety systems are needed that do not themselves become a distraction, simultaneously eliminating the safety enhancements that they provide for train engineers.