NTSB Accident Report Reveals a Litany of Mistakes

Railway accidents are often the result of a culmination of multiple errors that create a lethal situation conducive for causing an accident. Earlier this year, the NTSB published a report that pointed to multiple errors which caused worker fatalities in Edgemont, South Dakota on January 17, 2017.

The Accident

On January 17, 2017, two railroad workers were killed when they were hit by a train in Edgemont, South Dakota. The train was traveling at 35 mph when the accident occurred. At the time of the accident, the workers were clearing snow and ice from the train tracks. While train operators blew their horn to alert the workers and applied brakes, the train was unable to stop in time and the workers did not clear the tracks.

Factors That Caused the Accident

The first factor was the train approach warning. The workers were scanning the area visually but had less than 620 feet of visibility. At the speed the train was traveling, this gave them less than 12 seconds of warning. This distance was less than half the required distance of 1,280 feet regulations call for.

Further, investigators concluded that the watchman was improperly trained and inadequately equipped to perform his duties. Investigators uncovered numerous deficiencies in BNSF’s on-track safety program that contributed to the watchman’s failure to see and notify his coworkers of the oncoming train.

Finally, it was determined that worker-in-charge briefings were incomplete. These include improper preparation for the correct sight distance required for the location, the amount of time required to clear the track, and the methods and means the watchman was required to use to communicate the presence of the oncoming train.

The NTSB concluded that BNSF was negligent in the preparation and protection of their employees. Investigators determined that it was a combination of significant violations that created the deadly conditions which claimed the lives of two workers. Further, the investigation determined that the Federal Railway Administration should more consistently enforce regulations related to the training and equipping of watchmen.

Common Contributing Factors

While these factors were not involved in the Edgemont, South Dakota crash, they are commonly seen in many other crashes. These include employee fatigue, improper train operation, equipment failures, drug/alcohol use, and the use of portable electronic devices that can distract workers or impair their ability to hear an oncoming train.