WASHINGTON — A Union Pacific Railroad freight train blew through a stop signal going 65 mph last June before striking another UP train near Goodwell, and the crew made no attempt to slow down until seconds before the head-on collision that killed three people, a National Transportation Safety Board investigator said Tuesday.
The investigation is incomplete, and no probable cause has been determined for the June 24 collision in Texas County. Records released by the board on Tuesday showed none of the four crew members — two on each train — had previous disciplinary actions at Union Pacific, which has mandatory suspensions for those who violate stop signals.
Records of the crews' cellphones show none were in use just before or at the time of the midmorning crash.
Meeting here Tuesday about the accident, the board focused on safety training and human error in general, questioning officials from Union Pacific, the Federal Railroad Administration and the union that represents locomotive engineers and trainmen.
Robert Lauby, a safety expert with the railroad administration, said “running a red signal is something that's absolutely never supposed to happen.”
Witnesses said human mistakes commonly resulted from being distracted — often by cellphones — fatigue, the effects of medication and from “task overload” on the job.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board, a collision-avoidance system known as positive train control may have prevented the accident if it had been installed, though Lauby said that system is not infallible.
The Goodwell collision was caused by a train heading east that failed to slow down at two signals and to stop at a third; the crew didn't apply emergency braking until eight seconds before the collision.
NTSB investigator James Southworth said Tuesday that the trains collided at a combined speed of 79 miles per hour and that fuel from ruptured tanks ignited after the impact.
The NTSB found no mechanical problems with the trains or the signals. Damage to equipment and cargo is estimated at nearly $15 million.
The two crew members on the westbound train had slowed at signals and noticed shortly before the collision that something was wrong with the other train; one of the crew members jumped out before the collision and survived.
Drug tests on the surviving crew member were negative; tests couldn't be taken on the crew members killed because of the severity of the fire after the collision.
According to documents released Tuesday, a truck driver traveling parallel with the eastbound train said the train's horn activated for railroad crossings as they approached Goodwell but that he could not see anyone in the cab.
He said he was going about 68 mph and that the train was doing about the same speed, though it slowed a little about 3 miles from impact.
After the collision, the front of the eastbound train jumped 2 to 3 feet in the air, according to the truck driver, who felt the heat from the explosion and fire on his face through his closed window.
Robert Grimalia, vice president for safety and security for Union Pacific, said there were 95 cases at the rail company last year of stop signal violations, though a portion occurred during tests. The Goodwell incident was the only one in which a violation resulted in a crash, he said.
Crew members responsible for violations are suspended, initially for 30 days, he said.
Grimalia said there had been a gradual decline in the violations, which he attributed to company education programs.
Lauby, with the Federal Railroad Administration, said there were a total of 372 stop signal violations reported in 2011 by Class I railroads, which was down from 456 in 2005. Despite the reduction, he said, there were still “way too many.”
“We are not seeing a dramatic decrease in stop signal violations or speed signal violations,” he said.