Arkansas Rail Signal Wiped Out in Crash May Still Hold Clues

By KELLY P. KISSEL | August 21, 2014

A federal investigator said Tuesday that a signal that would have given a final instruction to the crew of a railroad train involved in a fatal head-on collision was damaged in the accident but could still hold clues as to what happened.

Crews are hopeful they can recover data from the signal, which was alongside a Union Pacific track near Hoxie in northeastern Arkansas. Two railroad workers died in the accident Sunday morning and two others were injured.

“We’d like to know what that signal was displaying,” said Michael Hiller, an investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board. The previous signal along the track displayed an “approach” signal, meaning the crew should be prepared to stop at the next light.

“That signal is just like a traffic light. You have to be ready to stop,” Hiller said.

Hiller said the southbound train, which carried the two crewmembers killed in the accident, was supposed to have stopped at a point that would have given a northbound train enough room to move onto an adjacent empty track.

“We do know that the train didn’t stop at the next signal,” Hiller said.

It typically takes months for the NTSB to release a statement of probable cause. After previous similar accidents it has renewed calls for railroads to install technology, including GPS units and computers, to keep trains out of the worst collisions.

Safety board member Christopher Hart said in March, after a series of oil train accidents, that PTC, or positive train control, could have prevented 24 accidents over the past decade.

Congress has mandated PTC be adopted by the end of 2015 but many railroads have said they cannot meet the deadline on all of their routes.

In addition to looking at the Hoxie signal’s data recorder, investigators sent in after Sunday’s accident would also look at a track switch to ensure it was working properly. They also would like to speak to the surviving trainmen.

Emergency crews previously recovered each train’s data recorder.

The speed limit for trains near Hoxie is 50 mph but Hiller said it wasn’t yet known how fast each train was moving at the time of the accident.

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