On the morning of June 28, 2016, a Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) freight train smashed into another BNSF freight train near the town of Panhandle, Texas, roughly 40 miles northeast of Amarillo. Three train crew members were killed in the Texas Panhandle train crash. A fourth person, an engineer, only survived after jumping from one of the trains just before the collision. Officials say each train had two crew members working at the time, a locomotive engineer and a conductor; no one else was aboard.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was dispatched to investigate the Texas Panhandle train crash. This week, the agency released its preliminary report on the crash, detailing its findings at this point in the investigation. The final report will likely take a year to complete.
According to the NTSB report, the sequence of events that led to the train accident started with a missed signal. One of the BNSF trains, which was heading east with Chicago as its final destination, reportedly passed through a yellow warning signal without slowing down.
The eastbound BNSF train went through the yellow “approach” signal at 62 miles-per-hour, according to the recently released NTSB report. The westbound train had been routed onto a siding, which is a low-speed detour from the main track used to allow trains to pass each other. According to the NTSB, the signal system was functioning properly at the time of the crash.
After seeing the yellow signal, the eastbound train should have slowed to 40 miles-per-hour. The train didn’t slow down; it actually gained more speed, going through a red light at 65 miles-per-hour. This is when the trains slammed into one another head-on.
The eastbound BNSF train was equipped with three head-end locomotives, two distributive power units and 56 loaded train cars. The westbound train reportedly had five head-end locomotives and 54 loaded train cars. Both trains were hauling consumer goods, including televisions, paper products, clothing and computers.
BNSF estimated the damage from the Texas Panhandle train crash to total around $16 million.
Moving forward, the NTSB will focus its investigation on man, machine and environment at the time of the crash, according to an agency spokesman.
Texas Panhandle Train Crash Victims Identified
Lara Gayle Taylor, 45, was one of the three who died in the Texas Panhandle train crash. The Amarillo native was a mother and an avid athlete who friends described as a “bright light” and a “treat to be around.”
Another victim, 52-year-old Cody Owens of Claude, took pride in his work and his family. He leaves behind three children. Kenneth Paul “K.P.” Smith, 59, was also killed. Smith worked for BNSF for nearly 40 years. His co-workers remember him as a good conductor who loved his family and a good adventure.
Positive Train Control Could Have Prevented the Texas Panhandle Train Crash
Joe Faust, a spokesman for BNSF, told the Amarillo Globe-News that technology called positive train control (PTC) would have prevented the Texas Panhandle train crash. PTC uses GPS, radio and computers to monitor train positions. It can automatically slow a train down in the event that it goes through a yellow light with too much speed. PTC can even stop a train if one is in danger or speeding, crashing or derailing.
Over the last couple of decades, train crashes like this one in Texas have ruined lives through catastrophic injury and death. This crash is not the first one that could have been avoided if PTC had been implemented—far from it.
In September of 2013, a BNSF freight train improperly proceeded through a signal and slammed into another stationary train, injuring five crew members. The NTSB faulted the crew in that crash for failing to heed the train signal. If PTC had been in place, the train could have been stopped before it collided with stationary train.
On May 12, 2015, an Amtrak train derailed at a curve in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania killing eight people and injuring over 200 others. The area where the train derailed has a posted speed limit of 50 miles-per-hour. According to the NTSB investigation on the Amtrak 188 crash, the train was going in excess of 100 miles-per-hour entering the curve.
Officials with the NTSB have said that if PTC had been implemented on the stretch of track where the Amtrak 188 crash occurred, the accident never would have happened.
On September 12, 2008, 25 people were killed and 135 others were injured when a Metrolink commuter train collided head-on with a freight train in Chatsworth, California after the Metrolink engineer ran through a red signal. According to the NTSB, the engineer had been distracted by his cell phone prior to the crash.
Immediately following the Chatsworth train crash, Congress mandated that PTC be implemented on commuter and freight rail lines by the end of 2015. That deadline has obviously passed, as Congress gave the railroads a three-year extension to implement the technology.
How many more crashes will we see that could have been prevented by PTC? Hopefully none, though only time will tell.