Q&A: A look at the investigation of a train derailment
The Associated Press
Mar. 16, 2016
Investigators are looking into the derailment of a passenger train early Monday in western Kansas. Here's a look at where the investigation stands:
WHAT CAUSED THE DERAILMENT?
Authorities say they are still investigating the derailment of Amtrak's Southwest Chief train along a stretch of track near the rural community of Cimarron.
Earl Weener, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, said Tuesday that a feed truck belonging to Cimarron Crossing Feeders LLC hit the section of track, shifting a rail about a foot before the train derailed. He stressed, though, that investigators hadn't determined whether the track damage caused the derailment.
Gray County Attorney Curtis Campbell said Wednesday that although he hadn't received a written report about the case, he doesn't expect to file charges based on what he's been told about the truck hitting the rail. He said it appears the truck's brakes may have slipped or weren't set before it rolled down a slight hill and into the tracks.
WHO IS INVESTIGATING?
The National Transportation Safety Board is leading the investigation. It has said that Cimarron Crossing has been "very cooperative" and granted investigators access to its truck. The NTSB hasn't said when or how the truck struck the tracks and the company has declined to comment. The business is licensed to feed up to 20,000 head of cattle. The NTSB says forward-facing video from the lead locomotive showed a "localized distortion" in the track in the area of the impact. It's unknown how long the investigation might take.
WHAT IS THE AREA LIKE WHERE THE TRAIN DERAILED?
The railroad tracks run alongside the south side of a paved highway and are not fenced off from it. Fresh tire tracks were found on both sides of the highway near the derailment. Cimarron Crossing is located north of the highway, and there is a gap in the fence separating that land from the highway where the tire tracks were found. The tire tracks were not located at a designated rail crossing.
WHAT ARE THE RULES REGARDING RAILROAD CROSSINGS?
The Federal Railroad Administration says pedestrians and vehicles are to cross railroad tracks only at designated crossings. The agency said in an email that trespassing on rail tracks is illegal and that 511 people were killed due to trespassing last year, representing more than 62 percent of all rail fatalities in 2015.
WHEN WAS THE RAIL LINE INSPECTED?
BNSF Railway, which owns the tracks, says the section where the derailment occurred was last inspected Thursday, March 10, and is inspected twice a week according to federal guidelines. BNSF says the examinations are conducted by an inspector on a hi-rail, which is a truck that drives on the tracks while a person on the truck performs the inspection.
WHERE WAS THE TRAIN HEADED?
The Southwest Chief was making a 43-hour journey from Los Angeles to Chicago when it derailed near Cimarron, which is about 160 miles west of Wichita. Eight cars derailed and four of them ended up on their sides.
HOW ARE THE TRACKS NOW?
BNSF said it repaired about 1,000 feet of track on Tuesday, which allowed train service to resume. It said it averages between 30 and 35 trains a week on the route. Amtrak said Wednesday that normal Southwest Chief service has returned in western Kansas.
HOW ARE THE INJURED FARING?
Four of the injured remained hospitalized Tuesday, including two people who were in critical condition at a hospital in Amarillo, Texas. A spokeswoman for that hospital did not respond to messages Wednesday seeking updates on the patients' conditions. One other patient was listed in good condition in Garden City, Kansas, on Wednesday. A spokeswoman for a Dodge City hospital, where another patient was being treated didn't respond to messages Wednesday.
COULD THIS HAVE BEEN AVOIDED?
Bob Comer, an Ohio rail safety expert who has investigated more than 400 train accidents and testified as an expert witness for plaintiff's lawyers, said as far as he knows this sort of incident is fairly rare. Comer, who had not been to the scene but reviewed television video footage of the derailment site, said Wednesday he's unaware of technology that could have alerted the railroad of track damage. He also raised the possibility of putting barriers between the railroad tracks and a highway that runs alongside the tracks, but questions who would pay for such barriers.