Deadly New Mexico Rail Crash Spurs Safety Recommendations

By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN | April 16, 2018

The National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday recommended that railroad companies install video and audio recording devices in their locomotive cabs to monitor the activities of crew members and ensure safe operations.

The board during a meeting in Washington, D.C., also recommended that federal railroad regulators find ways to prevent collisions like one in eastern New Mexico in 2015 in which an engineer was killed and a crew member was seriously injured.

Investigators say the two crew members had only seconds to apply their emergency brakes and decide whether to ride out the crash or jump as their Southwestern Railroad train headed toward a parked train on a siding near Roswell.

They jumped and the trains collided, causing about $2 million in property damage.

The wreck reignited concerns about manual switches, which federal safety officials described as a known high-risk hazard for the railroad industry.

Investigators and members of the board all pointed to previous crashes that stemmed from similar problems, including a 2005 derailment in South Carolina that killed nine people and displaced thousands of residents due to the release of chlorine from a ruptured tanker car.

Board chairman Robert Sumwalt said the recommendations are aimed at developing devices or techniques to eliminate the possibility of railroad employees failing to perform critical tasks such as aligning switches or ensuring train cars are in the clear.

He also said installing recording devices might deter the violation of safety rules by crew members as they’re headed down the tracks.

“A train is not an employee’s private retreat. It’s an enormous machine that can injure or kill. It can damage property and it can damage the environment,” he said. “And given the stakes, image and audio recorders belong in this setting.”

“In transportation, compliance with the rules is a matter of public safety and not public choice,” he said before adjourning the meeting.

This is not the first time the board has recommended recording devices or the use of technology to address the problem of misaligned track.

According to the Association of American Railroads, a policy and research organization that works with the industry, U.S. railroads are already independently installing inward- and outward-facing cameras.

The federal safety board also raised concerns Tuesday about drug use among railroad employees as a toxicology test determined the engineer of the moving train tested positive for marijuana and the conductor tested positive for oxycodone.

While it was unclear whether the conductor had a prescription for the medication, investigators say the engineer had likely smoked marijuana between 30 minutes and five hours before the crash. Rolling papers and pipes were found in the locomotive cab.

Investigators did say there was no sign of impairment by the crew given their behavior and response before the collision. They indicated the crew acted appropriately and likely didn’t have much time to react to the parked train as they had been told the switch was in the proper position.

Aside from the lack of an adequate warning system, investigators determined human error contributed to the cause of the collision since the crew member of the parked train failed to reset the switch. They cited fatigue in a summary of their report.

Bob Beaton with the safety board’s railroad investigation office described the process of manually aligning a switch as a routine task that’s often done without supervision.

The problem of missing a step in any well-practiced process isn’t specific to the railroad industry but rather human nature, he said.

“We are not machines. We do not operate error free 100 percent of the time despite our best intensions,” Beaton said.

Data presented at the meeting showed human-caused accidents have accounted for 37 percent of the events reported to the Federal Railroad Administration between 2008 and 2017. Switch alignments accounted for 13 percent of those.

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