A head-on collision involving two BNSF freight trains left three crew members missing and presumed dead and a fourth railroad worker hospitalized with injuries. The deadly crash occurred outside of Panhandle, Texas (TX), on the afternoon of June 28, 2016.
Railroad officials had no immediate explanation for why the trains were heading toward each other on the same track northeast of Amarillo at the same time. The National Transportation Safety Board has opened an investigation, and federal regulators are already claiming that use of positive train control (PTC) braking systems might have prevented the accident.
The trains may have been traveling faster than 70 mph when they collided. The impact caused a massive derailment and sparked a fire that continued to burn and hamper rescue and recovery efforts through the following day. One member of the two-person crews aboard each locomotive managed to jump clear before the crash. He survived with serious but non-life-threatening injuries. The other three engineers and brakemen remain unaccounted for, with emergency responders presuming they died in the crash or the ensuing fire.
My Carolina FELA attorney colleagues and I send our condolences out to the friends and family members of the railroad employees who lost their lives in what appears to be a preventable on-the-job accident. Class I railroads like BNSF have faced federal requirements to install PTC for nearly a decade, and the automatic braking technology was supposed to be fully implemented by last summer. Rail corporations have consistently opposed PTC rules, however, citing cost and inconvenience as primary reasons for dragging their feet on putting the GPS sensors and wireless communication relays in place.
Better radio contact, more attentive scheduling and clearer on-track signaling may also have alerted the train crews of their impending danger from an approaching train. Surely, major failures occurred. When investigators identify those mistakes, BNSF and all other major railroads must act immediately to minimize the chances that such errors will recur.