WASHINGTON — Two years before his failing vision likely contributed to a fatal crash in the Oklahoma Panhandle, freight train engineer Dan Hall told one of his eye doctors that he was having trouble distinguishing the color of train signals.
Hall had multiple eye conditions — going back to his childhood — that had escalated in the months before the June 2012 crash of two Union Pacific trains near Goodwell. In a 33-month period between 2009 and the crash, Hall went to his personal physician and eye specialists 50 times.
And in 2009, he failed the eye tests required to keep his job.
Hall cleared a subsequent test and was the engineer of a train heading east through Oklahoma last June 24 as a westbound Union Pacific train approached. Hall's train raced past signals meant to slow and then stop his train, and the trains collided at a combined speed of 79 miles per hour.
Hall and his conductor, Brian Stone, were killed, as was John Hall, the engineer on the other train; the two engineers were not related. Juan Zurita, the conductor on the westbound train, leapt off just before impact.
The National Transportation Safety Board investigated the crash for nearly a year and determined Tuesday that the probable causes were Dan Hall's vision problems and Stone's failure to provide the backup assistance required of a conductor.
Also contributing, according to the five-person board, was the absence of a safety system in the area called Positive Train Control. Having the system in place would have prevented the collision, which caused a massive, diesel-fueled fire and nearly $15 million in property damage, the board's staff said.
At a hearing Tuesday, board members also pointed to the railroad industry's lax medical standards compared with the airline and trucking industries.
“They've put their head in the sand for far too long,” board Chairman Deborah Hersman said.
Three crew members were obese
NTSB's chief medical officer, Mary Pat McKay, said train operators only have to undergo hearing and vision tests. Operators can have all types of medical conditions and be taking a host of medications — including ones that make them drowsy — and their employing train company wouldn't necessarily know it.
Three of the crew members involved in the Goodwell crash were obese, McKay said, and at least one had hypertension. It wasn't known whether any were diabetic or had sleep disorders, she said.
In regard to Hall, the engineer on the train that didn't obey the signals, his Texas driver's license was limited to daytime driving.
Hall, who was 56 and lived in Dalhart, Texas, had visual acuity of 20/70 in his right eye and 20/200 in the left on his last visit to the ophthalmologist three weeks before the collision. Visual acuity of 20/40 is required for certification.
The NTSB said Union Pacific did not comply with its own policies when it medically recertified Hall. The company requires a color test of 10 signals, but only six were available when he took the test, the NTSB staff reported.
Union Pacific responds
Union Pacific responded Tuesday that “our 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.”
“The accident that occurred in Goodwell, Oklahoma, was a tragedy that was deeply felt by the Union Pacific family,” the company said. “We were fully cooperative during the NTSB's investigation and plan to continue to invest in training, equipment and network infrastructure to ensure the safety of our employees and the communities in which we operate.”
The company said it would invest $450 million this year — and $2 billion overall — to implement Positive Train Control. More than 200 signals are installed with the technology, and about 1,200 locomotives are partially equipped, the company said.