McAlester News-Capital, McAlester, OK

State news

July 9, 2012

NTSB: Trains were not speeding before Oklahoma wreck

TULSA, Okla. — Two freight trains were not speeding when they collided in a fiery head-on crash that killed three people in the Oklahoma Panhandle, according to a preliminary federal report released Monday.

The National Transportation Safety Board found that the eastbound train was traveling at 64 mph and the westbound train was at 38 mph when they slammed into each other June 24 near the town of Goodwell. The speed limit in the area is 70 mph.

Data couldn’t be recovered from the lead locomotives, which almost welded together in the white-hot fire that broke out when they crashed, but the NTSB report said it retrieved recorders from engines helping to push the trains. The agency said it is checking the data to see whether train operators were receiving signals properly. Damage was estimated at nearly $15 million, according to the agency.

Terry Williams, a spokesman for the NTSB, said the investigation will take about a year to complete and declined to speculate on other factors that could have caused the collision.

“We’re still looking at the signals, the track, the weather,” Williams said. “We’re looking at the human, machine and the environment.”

Spokesmen for Union Pacific, which operated both trains, and the Federal Railroad Administration did not return messages seeking comment.

Three Union Pacific employees died in the accident: conductor Brian L. Stone, 50, of Dalhart, Texas; and engineers Dan Hall and John Hall, who were not related. Another conductor, Juan Zurita, escaped virtually unharmed by jumping from his train before they crashed.

The eastbound train, hauling mixed goods from Los Angeles to Chicago, had three lead locomotives and one following. The westbound, taking cars and trucks from Kansas City to Los Angeles, was pulled by two locomotives and pushed by one.

Last month, the NTSB said both trains’ brakes appeared normal and that no cellphones were found in the wreckage. The NTSB said it would check the crew members’ recent work schedules and rest periods, and also their evaluations.

It was also looking into the track’s speed rating after a cross-country truck driver said he was “pacing” one of the trains at 68 mph shortly before the crash.

Freight can travel at speeds of up to 80 mph, but only on tracks with the highest ratings for cargo. Passenger trains can travel faster on higher quality rails.

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