NTSB Meeting on 2014 Freight Trains' Collision

The August 2014 collision of two Union Pacific Railroad freight trains in Hoxie, Ark., prompted the safety board to issue urgent safety recommendations to help ensure that electronic alertness devices ("alerters") work as intended on trains.

Members of the National Transportation Safety Board are meeting Dec. 6 to determine the probable cause of the Aug. 14, 2014, head-on collision at 2:28 a.m. of two Union Pacific Railroad freight trains in Hoxie, Ark., on a section where a single main track transitioned into two main tracks. The collision killed the engineer and conductor on the southbound train and seriously injured the engineer and conductor on the northbound train, NTSB reported five months later when it issued urgent safety recommendations to help ensure that electronic alertness devices ("alerters") work as intended on trains.

In the recommendations, NTSB explained that the southbound train's locomotive was equipped with an alerter that used an alarm cycle beginning with 10 seconds of visual alarms followed by 10 seconds of visual and audible alarms of increasing intensity. After that, if the engineer does not perform an input or action to reset the alerter, the alerter delay is energized, the alarm is silenced, and the brakes are applied.

An alerter helps crew members stay vigilant in the locomotive cab by monitoring the locomotive engineer's activity. But NTSB reported that it found an alerter's reckoning of "idle time" can be reset to zero by inputs that do not necessarily demonstrate a crew member's continuing engagement. "The alerter is an automated system to make sure the human is engaged and, if necessary, to take action," NTSB Acting Chairman Christopher A. Hart said. "We found that the alerters were acting from automated events as if they had been human inputs."

The collision in Hoxie also derailed 55 cars, caused a spill of diesel fuel and a fire, and forced the evacuation of about 500 nearby residents.

NTSB reports that Union Pacific railroad has moved to fix the problem; it wants the Federal Railroad Administration to require that other railroads understand the problem and fix it where necessary.

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