One of two freight trains that collided in the Oklahoma Panhandle last summer, killing three workers and causing an inferno that nearly welded the locomotives together, sped past three signals warning it to slow down or stop, federal investigators said Tuesday.
The eastbound Union Pacific train passed a siding at 68 mph just prior to the June 24 collision near Goodwell instead of slowing as one of the Omaha, Neb., railroad's freight trains approached from the other direction, investigators told the National Transportation Safety Board at a hearing in Washington.
The NTSB said the hearing was for fact-finding purposes, not to assess blame. The panel heard testimony from railroad, government and labor union officials.
According to an accident reconstruction, the eastbound train passed two signals warning it to slow down and a third that directed it to stop. Data retrieved from the eastbound train show that its emergency brake was applied 8 seconds before the crash.
The accident killed three of the four people aboard the two trains. One person jumped from a train and survived.
The NTSB said both trains passed inspections the day before the accident and railway signals were working properly afterward.
Union Pacific's vice president of safety, Robert Grimaila, said the company registered 95 signal violations in 2012 on its internal system and that none led to collisions except those that preceded June's fatal wreck. Under questioning, he said railroad employees can be suspended or face other consequences for ignoring or missing a signal.
"We never want to see another accident like this happen again," he told the panel.
Jeff Young, an executive for the railroad, told the panel that Union Pacific has already spent more than $1 billion to implement a complete safety system overhaul — known formally in the industry as positive train control — that would greatly minimize future train accidents. Young estimated the upgrades would be in place as early as 2017 or by 2018 at the latest due to the complexity of the new system overhauls.
"People don't appreciate the complexity of what we're doing here," Young told the panel. "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."
Federal Railroad Administration official Robert Lauby said that while the number of signal violations is down — from 372 in 2005 to 372 in 2011 — there are still too many.
"We need different techniques to take it down to the next level, to make railroads even safer," he said. He suggested peer-to-peer safety programs to underscore that it is unacceptable to answer a cell phone in a locomotive, for example. The NTSB said it found no cell phones in the wreckage, though much of the train was destroyed.
Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen union official Dennis Pierce told the panel that railroad engineers suffer from "task overload" and must navigate new technology and reams of bulletins and memos as well as watching where their locomotive is traveling.
"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," he said Tuesday.
The collision caused an estimated $15 million in damage.
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