collision between two locomotive engines.
Needless to say, such occurrences are avoided if at all possible. But on the morning of June 28, 2016, two
freight trains collided head-on in the Texas Panhandle, killing three people
and causing an estimated $16 million in damage.
At the time I blogged about it, the only information available was news
reports. A few weeks later, the National
Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued a preliminary report on the accident. While the NTSB has not made public any
additional data on the accident since then, the preliminary report makes clear
that human error was likely at fault.
The BNSF line through the town of Panhandle is a
single-track line, and two-way traffic is managed with a series of
sidings. The dispatchers, probably in
the Fort Worth regional train control center, planned to switch the westbound
train to a siding near the town, where it would remain while the eastbound
train passed by on the main line. If the
eastbound train arrived in the area of the siding too soon, before the
westbound train had time to move completely from the main line to the siding,
two signals were set along the main line west of the eastern switch, where the
westbound train was going to leave the main line for the siding. The first signal the eastbound train
encountered was solid yellow, which means for the engineer seeing the signal to
slow the train to a maximum of 40 MPH and be prepared to stop at the next
signal. The second signal was set to
red, which forbids the engineer from moving any part of the train past the red
So the plan was for the eastbound train to slow down at the
yellow signal and stop at the red signal, while the westbound train arrived at
the eastern switch and eventually cleared the main line by running onto the
What happened instead was this. Before the dispatchers had a chance to change
the eastern switch from the main line to the siding, the eastbound train passed
the yellow signal on the main line going at 62 MPH and the red signal at 65 MPH,
heading through the switch on the main line straight for the westbound train. When the engineer on the westbound train saw
what was happening, he managed to jump from the cab. But his conductor died in the resulting crash,
as well as the engineer and conductor on the eastbound train. The NTSB report somewhat ruefully notes that
positive train control (PTC) was scheduled to be installed on this section of
track later in 2016, although planned PTC installations have suffered repeated
delays in the past.
PTC is a semi-automated system that promises to reduce the
chances for human error in train operations.
A PTC system would have figured out that the two trains were heading
toward a collision and would have at least slowed them down, if not preventing
the accident entirely. As it stands, the
physical evidence points responsibility for the accident toward the crew of the
eastbound train, as they failed to respond to the clearly visible yellow and
red signals in time.
We may never know what distracted them, but people make
mistakes from time to time. And some
mistakes exact a fearful penalty.
While even one death due to preventable causes is a tragedy,
some context to this accident is provided by a slim volume I have on my
shelves: Confessions of a Railroad Signalman, by James O. Fagan, copyright 1908. It was written at a time when
railroad-related fatalities (passengers and railroad employees combined) were
running at about 5,000 a year, a much higher rate per train-mile than today. Fagan’s concern was that railroad employees
of his day had to deal with on-the-job pressures that encouraged them to take
risks and shortcuts that flouted the rules, and that the management system was
ill-equipped to discipline misbehaving employees.
While much has changed in railroading since 1908, any system
that relies on a human being’s alertness can still fail if the person’s
attention flags. And that seems to be
what happened outside Panhandle, Texas on that summer morning in 2016.
If and when PTC is installed on most stretches of U. S.
railways, the hope is that fatal and costly accidents will decline to even
lower levels than what we see today. The
limiting factor after that will be mechanical malfunctions, perhaps, or dispatching
errors at a high enough level to overrule the PTC system. In any case, we can expect rail travel and
shipping to be even safer than it is now, which compared to 1908 is pretty safe
Machines and systems are deceptively solid-looking. It doesn’t seem possible that thousands of
tons of steel rolling stock and rails can change very fast. But the way it’s used can change, and PTC
promises to do that. Eventually, I
suppose that the nation’s entire rail system will be run by computers and will
resemble nothing so much as a giant version of a tabletop model train, running
smoothly and without collisions or hazards.
Of course, automobile drivers will still manage to stop on grade
crossings and people will walk on train trestles, so those types of accidents
can’t be prevented even by PTC. To eliminate
those types of accidents, we’d have to tear up the whole system and rebuild it
the way the English built their rail systems from the start: fenced-off railroad property, virtually no
grade crossings (tunnels and bridges instead), and other means to keep people
and trains permanently separated.
But I suspect we as a society are not that exercised to eliminate the last possible railroad fatality
from the country. So instead, we will
enjoy whatever benefits PTC brings along and hope that we personally can stay
out of the way of the trains.
ancestors as a historic footnote, a quaint disaster that simply can’t happen
anymore. Like soldiers dying on the last
day of a war, the crew members who died in the 2016 accident may be among the
last to depart in that singularly violent way.
But for those of us who remain, and whose continued survival depends on
our being alert, whether behind the throttle of a locomotive or the wheel of a
car, this story is a good reminder to keep awake and pay attention.
Panhandle, Texas accident can be found in the agency’s listing of railroad
incident reports at https://www.ntsb.gov/investigations/AccidentReports/Reports/DCA16FR008-PreliminaryReport.pdf.
For those with a certain type of morbid
curiosity, there is a collection of silent movies of three or four intentionally-staged
cornfield meets between steam locomotives that can be viewed on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CMpdpgZxt78. Confessions
of a Railroad Signalman was published by Houghton-Mifflin.