Fatal BNSF Crash Could Have Been Prevented by PTC, NTSB Says
By Rick Shapiro, Railroad Employee Wrongful Death Attorney
A yearlong investigation into a fatal rear-end collision on tracks near Red Oak, Iowa (IA), that left two Burlington Northern Santa Fe train crew members dead led the National Transportation Safety Board to conclude that proper scheduling and technology could have prevented the crash or significantly lessened its severity.
NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman announced the findings on April 24, 2012. Her agency’s main conclusion was that the collision between the BNSF train and a stopped track maintenance vehicle occurred because the engineer and conductor crewing the moving train had fallen asleep. The two men began their shift at 2:13 am, and the accident happened around 6:00 am. Both had been working on-call schedules and had gone several days without getting adequate sleep.
Hersman went on to note that the rail employees’ fatigue would most likely have not led directly to a fatal crash if their locomotive and rail cars were equipped with positive train control systems. PTC could have automatically slowed the train, reducing the force of the impact, or stopped it altogether.
The NTSB chair also said that that the BNSF accident highlighted the need for rail equipment manufacturers to improve the crashworthiness of modular crew cabs. She promised her agency would be working on those.
In a press release, Hersman said, “Human nature – and our need for sleep – must be respected; it must be addressed. … Humans are fallible and make mistakes and operational accidents can be prevented with positive train control.”
As a railroad worker injury and wrongful death attorney based in Virginia (VA), I know that PTC has supposed to be coming for all major railroads for some time. I also know that rail corporations — including Amtrak, BNSF, CSX and Norfolk Southern — have been pushing regulators to move back deadlines for PTC implementation. The billion-dollar corporations say installing the safety systems will cost too much. To me, this means the railroads place less value on the health and lives of their employees than required, or even approaching fair in light of the record profits companies like BNSf, CSX and NS have been making for years.
Failing the quick adoption of PTC, I hope BNSF and all other rail operators will at least look at staffing levels and scheduling practices, then make the appropriate adjustments to limit worker fatigue.
About the Editors: The Virginia- and Carolina-based attorneys at Shapiro, Lewis & Appleton have long histories of representing railroad workers in FELA and other railroad injury cases and of helping victims of rail crossing accidents. Lawyers at our firm have served as chairmen of the railroad section of the American Association for Justice, the largest national victim’s injury attorney organization, and one of our attorneys wrote a major legal encyclopedia section on railroad safety litigation. Check out our railroad injury case results to see for yourself. Be sure to get your free reports about railroad injury, disease and wrongful death FELA cases: The Do’s and Don’ts When Injured at a Railroad — Yours FELA Rights and What Railroad Claim Agents Won’t Tell You (But You Must Know). Also, our railroad injury lawyers proudly donate to the Fallen Brother Fund.