NTSB investigators on site of train collision in McPherson County

By Nick Gosnell
September 25, 2014

The National Transportation Safety Board has been called in to investigate the collision between two Union Pacific trains that took place in McPherson County early Thursday morning.

Ruben Payan, an investigator with the NTSB told Mid Kansas Online in an interview Thursday evening that NTSB staff is expected to be on scene for about four or five days collecting data from the signals, testing equipment, and making measurements of where the derailed cars lie, so that they can analyze the data at their headquarters in Washington, D.C. and have an answer as to what happened within 9-12 months.

Each of the trains has a data recorder. As Payan explained, "The event recorders on the trains are basically like the black boxes you hear about on airplanes. They record different operating parameters on the locomotives, such as throttle, brakes, horn, the headlights. Those will paint a picture of how the trains were being operated prior to the collision."

Those data recorders will be sent to Washington as well for analysis.

The track will not be reopened until all relevant evidence has been collected. Payan said, "Right now, they are waiting for us. We don't want to lose any evidence. They are holding back on their wrecking operations for us to be able to test the equipment that's there and collect all the perishable data, because once they start moving trains, things change."

As soon as the scene is released to the railroad, they will begin the wrecking operation to repair the track.

Payan did not want to speculate as to the cause of the accident. He said that the recorder data would have to be looked at first. "As soon as we start looking at the data, we'll be able to know a little bit more. We're going to talk to the train crews as soon as we can and they'll be able to fill in some of the gaps, as well."

All Payan would say with regard to the accident was that the head end of one train did hit the rear of the other one.

"Which one hit which one, we're not sure yet. We're kind of working on that right now."

One train was going into the siding track and one was on the main line, but Payan said they didn't have enough information yet to make any preliminary determinations.

"We don't know if it was a mechanical problem, a signal problem, or a human factor problem."

The NTSB is particularly interested in this case because it wants to know if the Positive Train Control system which has been mandated by Congress, but is still in the process of being implemented, could have assisted in preventing the accident.

Payan explained, "It's a predictive system where it's monitoring what the train crew is doing. If it notices that a train crew is approaching a signal where it should stop, and the crew doesn't take action, the system takes some control away from the engineer and stops the train before it can violate a signal."

The original deadline for the implementation of Positive Train Control in the United States was 2015, though bills have been introduced in Congress to extend that deadline to 2020.