An engineer killed in a fiery train collision in the Oklahoma Panhandle last year suffered from serious vision problems for much of his life, underwent several corrective procedures in the years leading up to the crash and even complained that he couldn’t distinguish between red and green signals, a doctor told a federal oversight board Tuesday.
Despite his failing vision, the engineer continued driving freight trains and was guiding one of the ones that collided June 24, 2012, near town of Goodwell, killing him and two other railroad workers and causing about $15 million in damage.
“He repeatedly complained that his vision fluctuated and was described as OK one day, not OK the next,” Dr. Mary Pat McKay told the National Transportation Safety Board during a hearing in Washington that determined the engineer’s poor eyesight was the probable cause of the collision.
The board also proposed 16 safety recommendations for the railroad industry, unions and oversight agencies. Many of the recommendations deal with beefing up the frequency and quality of medical screenings for workers who have safety-sensitive positions. It also proposed implementing a workplace culture in which safety is placed above silence.
The Federal Railroad Administration does not require comprehensive medical screening, instead relying on operators to self-report medical conditions to the company, McKay said.
“Had the railroad tested the eastbound engineer’s vision in 2010, medical records demonstrate that he would have failed … any of the standard color vision tests,” she said.
The panel voted 5-0 that the failing eyesight of the train operator, whose name was withheld, was the probable cause of the collision.
According to McKay, the engineer suffered from glaucoma and cataracts for much of his life, and in the three years leading up to the crash, he made about 50 visits to eye doctors and underwent about a dozen procedures. He had even complained about not being able to distinguish between the red and green stop and go signals that govern train traffic, she told the board.
Deborah Hersman, NTSB chairman, said the company is responsible for ensuring employees are capable of fulfilling their roles safely.
“Railroads must pay extra attention to monitoring employees with chronic medical conditions who hold safety-sensitive position,” Hersman said. “If an employee can put their life or the lives of others at risk, it is imperative that others take the necessary and appropriate action.
A Union Pacific spokeswoman, Raquel Espinoza, said company records “indicate the engineer passed all of the federally mandated vision tests and suggestions that his vision may have contributed to the accident are pure speculation.”
Another investigator said controlling trains remotely, through a system known as Positive Train Control, rather than relying on train drivers to read trackside signals, would have eliminated the possibility of an accident that day.
Tim DePaepe, who worked the accident site last year, said Positive Train Control would have presented visual and audible warnings to the engineer and crew that the train was in trouble. If warnings are ignored, the system applies brakes automatically.
“This accident would not have occurred,” DePaepe said.
Inspectors recovered no recordings of crew communications and couldn’t perform autopsies on those who died. A westbound crew member survived by jumping from his train before the accident.
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