Red Oak Rail Wreck

By Earl F. Weener
In September 2008, a commuter passenger train and a freight train collided head-on near Chatsworth, California. The accident killed 25 people, injured 100 more, and caused damages in excess of $12 million.

What caused this tragedy? The engineer of the commuter train was sending and receiving text messages on his personal cell phone — counter to the company policy — and was distracted from his duties — so distracted that he passed a red signal without stopping.

Our investigation revealed this was not the first time that the engineer had used his cell phone while on duty. He also had a history of letting unauthorized people into his cab. Had the engineer’s employer had a mechanism for effective oversight, both behaviors could have been addressed sooner, which may have prevented the accident. This is why the NTSB recommended that the Federal Railroad Administration require the installation and use of crash- and fire-protected inward- and outward-facing audio and image recorders. Knowing that the company can review footage later would help deter employees from violating company practices and railroad safety rules; the recorders would also provide railroads with a more comprehensive way to evaluate the adequacy of their safety programs.

In April 2011, a loaded coal train collided with a standing maintenance of way equipment train near Red Oak, Iowa. In this accident, two railroad employees lost their lives and damage was estimated at nearly $9 million. This accident again highlighted the need for crash- and fire-protected inward-facing audio and image recorders to monitor employee compliance with railroad safety rules and to collect critical information on those final actions taken by operating employees to avert deadly collisions.

Onboard recording devices are invaluable. Yes, they help operators monitor compliance but they also provide crucial information to identify safety issues, they have proven useful in helping operators achieve greater operating efficiencies, and they enhance accident investigations. For more information on the benefits of onboard recorders, see http://www.ntsb.gov/safety/mwl-7.html.

Earl F. Weener, Ph.D., took the oath of office as a Member of the National Transportation Safety Board on June 30, 2010.

Member Weener is a licensed pilot who has dedicated his entire career to the field of aviation safety.


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