NTSB: Failure to Adhere to Track Warrant Control Led to Fatal Texas Wreck

WASHINGTON – The probable cause of a May 19, 2004, fatal collision between two BNSF trains was caused by one crew’s failure to adhere to an after-arrival track warrant requiring them to stay in one location until the northbound train arrived, the National Transportation Safety Board has determined.

Contributing to the accident was BNSF Railway Co.’s use of after-arrival track warrant authority in non-signaled territory, and the Federal Railroad Administration’s failure to prohibit the use of such authority. Also contributing to the accident was the train dispatcher’s informal communications regarding planned train meeting locations.

“This accident could have been prevented if the proper procedures and protocol had been followed flawed as those procedures are,” said NTSB Acting Chairman Mark Rosenker. “It is imperative that crewmembers abide by the rules and regulations that are in place.”

On May 19, 2004, two BNSF Railway Company freight trains collided head on near Gunter, Texas. The southbound train (BNSF 6789), was traveling about 37 mph and the northbound train (BNSF 6351) was traveling about 40 mph when the collision occurred. The collision resulted in the derailment of 5 locomotives and 28 cars.

The southbound train engineer was killed, and the southbound train conductor sustained serious injuries. The crewmembers on the northbound train also sustained injuries.

The investigation revealed that there was another northbound train (BNSF 2917) that originally had main track authority to the north siding switch at Dorchester. Northbound 2917 and southbound 6789 passed each other at Dorchester; the northbound train subsequently was authorized to continue north.

Because southbound 6789 did not verbally confirm the train identification of northbound 2917 by radio, the crew most likely assumed that northbound 2917 was the single train that the dispatcher had told them they would meet at Dorchester.  After the trains passed, southbound 6789 was issued the track warrant authorizing it to proceed south from Dorchester after the arrival of northbound 6351.

The investigators found that at the time of the collision, northbound 6351 was proceeding at the allowed track speed with valid authority to travel north on the main track from milepost 678 to the south siding at Dorchester. The southbound 6789 train crew was required to note on their track warrant form the engine number, the time, and the location when they met northbound 6351.

As a result of the accident investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board issued various recommendations to the FRA, BNSF and the AAR.

— Special to The Cross-Tie

Published in the July 2006 edition of The Cross-Tie.