Texting by conductor played role in Porter County train crash, federal report says
BY AMY LAVALLEY Post-Tribune correspondent September 9, 2013 12:18PM
A National Transportation Safety Board report has ruled that lack of a train-control system, along with a texting conductor, contributed to this January 2012 train derailment in Porter County. | Post-Tribune File Photo
Updated: October 11, 2013 6:12AM
A texting train conductor who was traveling almost 30 mph over what was safe for conditions helped cause in a Jan. 6, 2012, train collision and derailment in Jackson Township, according to a federal report.
Other causes of the crash include inattention to wayside rail signals and poor communication. The report also said a device called a “positive train control system” could have prevented the accident by stopping the train automatically, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
The crash, which involved three westbound CSX trains headed to Chicago, caused the temporary evacuation of residents within a one-mile radius of the accident site, near Porter County Roads 600 North and 500 East. Spilled diesel fuel from the locomotives caught fire, sending a plume of smoke high into the sky; the crash site continued to smolder the next day.
The texting conductor and the engineer on that train, who were not identified, both suffered minor injuries, and the crash temporarily disabled one of the nation’s key freight corridors.
All told, the NTSB report, released Aug. 20, said the crash caused $5 million in damages.
CSX does not dispute the report.
“CSX takes no exception to the NTSB’s findings,” a company spokeswoman said Monday. “Strict compliance with both trackside signals and operating rules is fundamental to safe operations.”
According to the report, a westbound train had stopped when a second train hit it and derailed. A third train on a parallel track then struck the derailed train cars. The accident derailed a total of 30 cars and locomotives between the three trains.
Using cell phone records from the conductor of the second train as part of its investigation, the NTSB noted that at 1:15 p.m., three minutes before the crash, the conductor sent a text message to someone who had been trying to call him.
“Although evidence showed that the conductor of train Q39506 had been distracted by using his cell phone (texting) while on duty, there was no evidence that any crewmembers on the other involved trains were using portable electronic devices at inappropriate times,” the report said.
The engineer and conductor on the first train were directed to switch tracks and stop to allow another train to pass. The second train was supposed to do the same but instead, according to the report, it hit the first train and derailed.
The conductor on the first train told investigators he alerted the conductor on the second train that he had stopped but got no response. He then felt a jolt and later heard a crewmember from the second train announce, “emergency, emergency, emergency” over the radio.
According to the report, the second train should have been traveling around 15 mph as it approached the first train, so it could stop safely. Instead, it was traveling at 44 mph at the time of the crash.
The report said though the conductor of the second train heard the first train had stopped, he didn’t ask the engineer if he had also heard the message, and the two didn’t discuss it. The second train’s engineer also did not reduce the train’s speed when he saw yellow and red wayside signals.
The Federal Rail Administration did not cite CSX for any violations in an audit after the accident, according to the NTSB report. CSX also discussed the accident with its operating crews, emphasizing compliance with rail signals.
Investigators ruled out track and mechanical conditions as contributing to the crash. All of the train crews passed toxicological tests for alcohol and illegal drugs, and visibility that day was clear.