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NTSB Rules Freight Train Crew Likely Fell Asleep Causing Fatal Crash

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Federal investigators have ruled that the fatal collision between two Union Pacific freight trains in Arkansas on August 17, 2014 resulted from a fatigued engineer and conductor who both likely fell asleep aboard one of the trains. The collision derailed 55 cars and a diesel-fuel spill and a tank car leaking alcohol for consumption caught fire. About 500 people were evacuated within 1.5 miles of the crash.

A southbound train passed two yellow warning lights and a red signal without slowing down and with no sign of activity in the train’s cab before the collision, before colliding with a northbound train that was turning onto an adjacent track, according to investigators. The northbound crew members had no time to apply brakes. The engineer and conductor on the southbound train died. The northbound crew members were seriously injured, but survived the crash.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), previously issued warnings to the Federal Railroad Administration (FAA) and railroads about the flaw in the automated warning system on the southbound train. An automated alarm could have given visual and audio warnings to the crew, but failed to sound because it interpreted the train’s automated horn signal as someone operating the controls.

This fatal crash also revives the need for automatic-braking systems, known as positive train control (PTC). According to the NTSB, the crash could have been prevented by a PTC system. This seems to be the case every time a major train derailment occurs. The automatic-braking system includes GPS and wireless communications technology and central control centers that would monitor trains and automatically apply the brakes on trains about to run a red light, collide, or derail. It would prevent train accidents resulting from human error; most often the cause of railroad accidents. In this case, it was determined that the engineer was diagnosed with moderate sleep apnea in 2010, yet Union Pacific didn’t require him to report the condition. Reports also revealed that the conductor worked irregular shifts, a pattern that often leaves to fatigue.

The NTSB recommended the PTC more than 20 years ago, but railroad companies complained that the technology is too expensive. After a 2008 passenger-train crash in California, Congress ordered all railroads to install an automatic-braking system by the end of 2015. That deadline was extended to the end of 2018 because of cost and technological hurdles. There is also an option for the transportation secretary to extend a railroad’s deadline through 2020. PTC may never be implemented at this rate.

How many deaths does it take for stronger safety action? How many fatal train accidents does it take to clearly demonstrate the need for positive train control? To continue to allow extensions is unacceptable. Let’s hope this latest incident makes it impossible for railroads to fight the deadline any longer.

Mark Bello is the CEO and General Counsel of Lawsuit Financial Corporation, a pro-justice lawsuit funding company.

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  1. Oscar M says:
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    I share in the frustration of PTC not being on schedule. Having said that, I strongly suspect that these crew members must have fallen asleep previously and that this was not their first time. Locomotives have onboard cameras. Why dont we audit these tapes frequently to determine and correct behaviours that can lead to injuries (including fatalities). The notion that this would invade their (crews) privacy should not be accepted given the fatalities that we have experienced as a result of human error.