Abels & Annes

Cause of deadly collision between Chicago to California Amtrak train and semi truck still unknown

Investigators are searching for answers in the aftermath of a deadly train accident between a tractor-trailer and a Chicago to California bound Amtrak that left 6 dead and many others injured.

According to the San Francisco Gate, the train vs. truck crash occurred at 11:30 a.m. on June 24th on a remote highway crossing 70 miles east of Reno, Nevada. The crossing gate and blinking safety lights were functioning and initiated 25 seconds before the train reached the crossing. Investigators are not sure why the truck driver failed to heed to the warnings in time even as other trucks in the convoy did.

The two other truck drivers and the train’s engineer looked on helplessly as the tractor trailer slammed into the double-decker Amtrak passenger train and burst into flames. The driver applied the brakes too late and skidded for the length of a football field before the collision. The resulting fire was intense enough to keep search teams from entering the wreckage until Saturday, after the two train cars burned out. Among the dead were the truck driver, the train’s conductor, and some of the estimated 195 passengers on board. An exact passenger estimate is difficult to ascertain as Amtrak does not record the amount of passengers that actually board the train.

The National Transportation Safety Board, or NTSB, is now investigating exactly what caused the seemingly avoidable crash. Investigators are focusing on the driver of the truck, including his medical and driving history, training, experience, toxicology report, and cell phone log. Investigators are currently baffled as to why the driver was unable to see the oncoming train on a clear day with functioning warnings. Reuters is reporting that the driver had received five traffic citations while driving commercial vehicles in the past three years. Three of those tickets were speeding citations received as he drove a school bus.

The driver worked for John Davis Trucking Co. in Battle Mountain, Nev., a family owned company that specializes in hauling ore from local mines. According to CNN, records indicate that the company has had 19 previous safety violations and had a fatal single-vehicle accident in May. One such citation was issued for operating a truck with tire treads so bare that it had to be taken off the road. Investigators are set to meet with representatives of the trucking company this week in an attempt to gain records on the driver and investigate the company itself.

Authorities are not entirely sure whether it was human error or a mechanical failure that caused the crash, and it may take the NTSB a year to pinpoint the probable cause. Lawyers are already investigating the incident to determine who is at fault so that they may seek compensation for the injured passengers and the devastated families who lost their loved ones in the tragic accident.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration‘s online database, an average of 163 accidents have occurred at Illinois rail crossings since 2001, with a total of 270 fatalities over that period. In 2009, there were 1,896 incidents at public highway-rail crossings in the United States that resulted in 247 deaths. The entire FRA database may be explored by going to their website.

It is important to note that Illinois has many busy railway crossings and their safety mechanisms can malfunction. Drivers must not let their familiarity with crossings lull them into a false sense of security. Never attempt to cross a rail after the warning has sounded, even if the gate has not come down yet, and always keep watch for unexpected trains. Human error is an ever-present danger that must be respected.

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This article was co-written by Shane Nichols, Juris Doctor Candidate 2013, The John Marshall Law School.