Sunday, November 18, 2012

Train Accident Investigations

The parade float - train accident in Midland, Texas, is a heartbreaking tragedy. But, the amount of misinformation about the accident is unusually high. Because I have investigated railroad accidents and have a number of railroads as clients, let me make a couple of comments.

There is a camera pointing forward in all railroad locomotives.

When you view the video, you'll hear the activation of the horn and you'll hear the hiss of the breaks being applied the moment the construction equipment comes into view. A similar tape will be available in the Midland case and it will show the situation as it unfolded.

The Train Came "Out of Nowhere."
The best graphic of the site came out in the Wall Street Journal and a clue was provided by a railroad employee posting on As the U.S. calendar advances from the fall equinox to the winter solstice, the sun sets in the west southwestern sky.
Look at the red arrow showing the train approaching the crossing from the west southwest. At 4:40 in the afternoon the sun would have been almost over the track and about 11° above the horizon. The glare from the sun would likely have impeded people from seeing the approaching train in the distance.

That Midland Crossing is in a "Quiet Zone"
In most parts of the country when a train approaches a crossing the crew sounds the horn with two long, one short, and one long blast. According to the article at the link, the crossing is in a "quiet zone" where the crew does not routinely sound the horn. It is very likely the horn was being sounded as the train approached the float but it is possible the horn wasn't sounded as early as it might have been if the quiet zone did not exist. This may have added to the perception the train "came out of nowhere."

The Railroad Crossing Activation by the Approaching Train
This is not up to the railroad. There are federal requirements for the timing of the lights and crossing gates.

Addition: Updated timeline from the Los Angeles Times.


  1. Sun angle was also a factor in the Amtrak crash south of Savannah a few years ago, except then it was an early morning crash with some lingering fog.


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