Anatomy of a Train Wreck

Investigators know how two trains collided killing an engineer in southeast New Mexico last week. The mystery lies in why the crash happened.

Diven SWRR1

Diven SWRR2 Diven SWRR3I wrote the story below three days after the April 28 crash on the Southwestern Railroad, a shortline leasing the BNSF Railway tracks from Clovis south through Portales and along the Pecos River through Roswell and Carlsbad almost to the Texas state line. This was to be the fourth of my stories appearing on the website of the national railroad magazine that dispatched me to cover the wreck, but breaking news from Washington and ripping up a magazine page on deadline that Friday got in the way of it being published. I’ve included some details from an earlier story on what investigators found when they downloaded data from event recorders in the locomotive and also appended a bit of commentary at the bottom.

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Southwestern resuming service as probe of deadly crash continues

By William P. Diven

ROSWELL, N.M. — The Southwestern Railroad expects to be back in full operation this weekend after a fatal collision between moving and standing trains earlier in the week near Roswell, N.M.

The condition of the conductor severely injured in the crash also was said to be improving. He and engineer Jesse Coburn III, 48, who died at the scene, both jumped from their locomotive moments before the crash at about 6:20 a.m. Tuesday.

“I knew Jesse personally, and it’s a terrible loss for all of us,” Bruce Carswell, vice president of operations for SW parent company The Western Group, said. “Our hearts and prayers go out to his family.”

Coburn, a native of Bakersfield, Calif., and resident of Texico, N.M., is survived by his mother, a son and two daughters, and a sister. His funeral will be held Saturday at the First Baptist Church in Farwell, Texas.

The conductor was taken first to a Roswell hospital and then flown by air ambulance to the regional trauma hospital, University Medical Center in Lubbock, Texas. While his name and the extent of his injuries have not been released, Carswell said he has been told the man’s condition is improving.

NTSB investigators arrived on the scene 12 miles south of Roswell late Tuesday afternoon and quickly discovered the east switch at Chisum lined and locked for the siding. That sent the 79-car westbound Clovis-Carlsbad manifest train head on into a 12-car eastbound tied down in the siding and left unmanned by its crew about 30 minutes earlier.

Why the main line switch was set in reverse position is one aspect of the NTSB inquiry that also is looking at track, mechanicals, operations and human-performance issues.

During a media briefing on Wednesday, Earl Weener, a member of the NTSB governing board, said the crewmen likely would have fared better had they stayed aboard the lead unit, a Ferromex SD-70ACe, which remained upright with survival space in the cab intact.

While it may be a year before the NTSB determines the probable cause of the crash, Weener shared factual details gathered so far:

  • The event recorder shows normal operations starting with a brake test followed by appropriate use of horn, throttle and brakes and final horn blasts for the grade crossing just before the siding. Peak speed was 42 mph, within the 49 mph limit for unsignaled territory.
  • The crew was aboard for 52 minutes and covered 15 miles before reaching the siding listed in BNSF employee timetables as Chisum.
  • The switch lined into the siding was locked in place.
  • A forward-facing camera was in a locomotive in the middle of the westbound’s nine-unit power consist.
  • Traveling at 42 mph, engineer moved the throttle to idle 32 seconds before impact. At about 18 seconds before impact he threw the brakes into emergency. At that time the lead locomotive was 827 feet from the point of impact.
  • Speed had dropped to 31 mph when the crash occurred.
  • On Wednesday the NTSB interviewed the conductor of the standing train. An interview with the engineer was scheduled later in the day. Weener did not discuss the contents of the interview.
  • In response to a reporter’s question of hearing a maintenance crew worked on that part of the line two days before the crash. Weener said he had no knowledge of that.

There were nine locomotives on the westbound, three FXE in the lead trailed by six from BNSF Railway, with the extra power being ferried to haul a unit train back to Clovis. The two eastbound engines are owned by the SW.

Hulcher Services rerailed the last of the 11 locomotives at about 10 p.m. Wednesday and restored the track about midnight, Carswell said. Work after that involved moving the engines onto the siding and finishing up track work.

“All of the locomotives have at least some damage,” Carswell continued. “We’re working with the BNSF mechanical folks to get this all sorted out and where we need to send them.”

SW officials also plan to meet with employees to review safety and operating practices, he added. Meanwhile SW and BNSF are sorting out the cost of the damage under the insurance clause of their reciprocal power agreement.

SW officials also plan to meet with employees to review safety and operating practices, he added.

Since Southwestern is a party to the NTSB investigation, Carswell he could only discuss other issues like the cleanup and operations. It could be a year before the NTSB issues its formal report on the probable cause of the crash.

“This has definitely interrupted our main line operations,” Carswell said. “Operations have been maintained in Carlsbad, and we’ve been serving our customers there.”

SW serves agricultural and oil-field customers and potash mines out of Carlsbad with about 40 miles of industrial spurs. At Loving south of Carlsbad the 300-acre Rangeland Energy hub received its first unit train of fracking sand last week.

This was the first fatality among SW train crews on the former BNSF Carlsbad Sub leased in 2001. A second fatal crash on SW’s other New Mexico operation in November 2013 remains under investigation.

In the earlier incident on SW’s Whitewater Line, a train with one locomotive and eight loads of magnetite ran away while descending toward Bayard. The train derailed sending the locomotive into a ravine killing the two crewmen and a girlfriend apparently along for a Saturday ride.

The Whitewater Line is part of the former BNSF Deming Sub linking the junction at Rincon with the Union Pacific at Deming and extending north to mines near Silver City. Southwestern bought that trackage in segments from 1992-2001.

“My focus from the day I got here has been safety,” said Carswell, a veteran railroader who came aboard in October with a résumé including executive positions with Iowa Pacific Holdings and Genesee & Wyoming Inc.  “In my career I have had the honor to work with some world-class safety folks. I worked to bring along the lesson learned, the skills sets and brought along a number of people.

“We’ve been working diligently to make this railroad as safe as it can be. With this incident we’re waiting to understand more of the fact to see what the lessons learned may be.”

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I’ve covered a number of train wrecks from spectacular derailments that injured no one to a long-form historical tale of the 1956 crash of two passenger trains that killed 21 railroad men near Springer, N.M. Despite changes in the industry and a dramatic drop in the number of railroad employees over the decades, railroaders remain something of a family where pretty much everybody knows everyone else on their shortline or their division of a giant like BNSF. They take it personally when someone is killed or injured,

And they generally have some sympathy for whoever caused the wreck, unless the person is a known jerk, because over time most railroaders have made their own mistakes or cut a corner and gotten away with it. Winking at the rulebook was more common in the days before event recorders and drug tests, so you find much less of that today.

I interviewed the fireman responsible for the 1956 wreck on the Santa Fe Railway, which was in some ways similar to last week’s crash at Chisum–one train head on into another on a siding. The fireman’s Fast Mail Express was parked in the middle of the night on Robinson siding south of Springer waiting for the Chief headed for Albuquerque. The fireman walked forward to be ready to open the switch so his train could leave but violated a rule requiring him to stay away from the switch until the other train passed. Instead he took a shortcut by unlocking the switch and walking a short distance away. Now ripe for tragedy, he became confused when his engineer tooted the horn and ran back to the switch opening it moments before the Chief arrived at about 60 mph.

The fireman, considered the nicest guy on the division, was 44 at the time and lived with the knowledge of his mistake until his death one day shy of turning 93. After the crash, the Santa Fe amended its rulebook to strengthen the prohibition against approaching a switch when two trains are meeting. So it’s not a cliché when railroaders tell you each rule is written in blood.

2 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Train Wreck

  1. I noticed your byline in the July 2015 edition of a national train magazine; that is, after reading the article to which your byline is attached. I thought I would respond here because of the subject matter – railroad safety.

    I have advocated for Positive Train Control technology as far back as 1993 when I wrote a letter to a national railroad trade publication in response to the then head-on collision of two freight trains near the town of Kelso, Wash.: one a Burlington Northern and the other a Union Pacific. In that mishap all five crewmembers tragically and unnecessarily lost their lives. Interestingly, the testing of a crash-avoidance technology was supposedly conducted in this territory soon thereafter. I never learned what the outcome of that testing program was or how long it lasted. Just to reiterate, this was in 1993.

    This brings me to the horrible incident in Chatsworth, Calif. in 2008. The conclusions reached by the NTSB as a result of it conducting its investigation into this crash and then in its reporting thereof, these are what they are, several of which I do not completely agree with.

    I, for one, do not believe that a complete and utter dereliction of duties was the lone contributing factor. Permit me to explain.

    In the NTSB’s Railroad Accident Report RAR-10/01 “Collision of Metrolink Train 111 With Union Pacific Train LOF65-12 Chatsworth, California September 12, 2008,,” it was mentioned that the conductor onboard the train that afternoon prior to 111 departing the Chatsworth Station had given engineer Robert Sanchez the “highball” to depart. If the westbound signal at Topanga was, in fact, red, why would have the said conductor communicated to engineer in question, that the train was good to go, as it were?

    Furthermore, three eye witnesses on the station platform (two train enthusiasts and a security guard) gave testimony (at least to Los Angeles Times reporters covering the story (I believe Molly Hennessey Fiske was one of them) that the westbound signal at Topanga (the A signal or signal for the mainline) was green and not red. It is unclear whether or not the signal in question could be seen reliably from the station platform, according to what I understand from my reading of this report. How could those three eyewitnesses all be mistaken? That, in addition to the conductor in question, himself communicating to the engineer an “all clear” track condition.

    Then there is this: There were two crossings between the station and the signal at the Topanga control point – first Devonshire Rd. and second Chatsworth St. based on the direction train 111 was moving. For both crossings, Sanchez initiated appropriate horn and bell warnings for each of these crossing and at the appropriate times, no less, also according to what I understand. For someone who supposedly was derelict in his duties, intermittently or otherwise, how could he know when to initiate the horn and bell warnings and not be cognizant of the signal aspect at Control Point Topanga? The presumption is before moving train 111 forward, he would have glanced up and out the locomotive’s windows to check out conditions of the track ahead, as well as during the time said train approached and entered the two crossings in question? In addition, it was further brought out in the report in question that Sanchez moved the throttle and made brake applications representative of proper train operation had the signal at Control Point Topanga been green.

    From the report:

    Finding 8: “The engineer of train 111 was actively, if intermittently, using his wireless device shortly after his train departed Chatsworth station, and his text messaging activity during this time compromised his ability to observe and appropriately respond to the stop signal at Control Point Topanga.”

    Analysis: Based on information presented, evidence suggests that Robert Sanchez (the engineer of Metrolink train 111 of September 12, 2008) was engaged in text messaging activity on his wireless device until about 4:22:01 p.m.

    There is a question, however, as to when text message number 7 sent from the person identified in the report as “Person A” via this person’s wireless device – the last text message received by Sanchez sent by Person A – was received.

    According to information documented in the report, two different times were presented regarding the times this message was received. In one part of the report, it is documented that the seventh such text message received by Sanchez’s wireless device was at 4:21:03 p.m.

    “Verizon Wireless records of calls and text messages to and from the engineer’s personal cell phone/wireless device showed that while the engineer was en route from the maintenance facility to Union Station he received a text message from an individual who will be referred to in the report as ‘Person A.’ This was the first of seven text messages Person A transmitted to the engineer from the time train 111 departed the maintenance facility until the accident” (page 2).

    “At 4:21:03 p.m., Verizon records showed that the engineer received the seventh text message from Person A” (page 7).

    Then, in another part of the report, it is documented that “The last message received by the engineer from Person A arrived at the engineer’s wireless device at 4:20:57, about the time train 111 was accelerating out of Chatsworth station” (page 35).

    Both stated times cannot be correct.

    Additional perspective is provided: “Because wireless network records regarding ‘sent’ times are less precise than those regarding ‘received’ times, it cannot be known with certainty at what time the engineer pressed the ‘send’ button on his wireless device to transmit his last message. But the content of the message clearly shows that it was in response to the previous message, which he had received just as the train was pulling out of the station” (page 54).

    A complete dereliction of duties on the part of said Metrolink 111 engineer Robert Sanchez that day? I don’t think so! Doesn’t the conductor in question at least bear some of the responsibility for communicating the “all clear” call before that train departed Chatsworth Station that day?

    Obviously, there are no easy answers here. But, to pin blame squarely on Robert Sanchez for running past a control point (or “absolute” in railroad parlance) signal that was supposedly red (at least three eyewitnesses provided testimony indicating otherwise) in my heart of hearts I know is unfair.

    There was also a statement given by a railroad consultant in one L.A. Times report covering this event to the effect that while this person was employed as a locomotive engineer, on two separate occasions he witnessed false clear signal indications while on duty. He expressed that he had the presence of mind not to proceed because he instinctively knew of the conditions on the track ahead of his train being in conflict with the signal aspect displayed. There was no additional information about the two false clear indications in the article. As to why this was, I cannot say.

    My questions would be: What was responsible for the two “false clear” indications? What, if anything, was found to be the cause of the “false clear” indications? If a cause was identified, what repair or correction was made so that this condition was not repeated? Were these anomalies reported to the appropriate authorities? What action was taken in response?

    Anyways, enough said.

  2. “Enough said”? Apparently not.

    Related to the conductor of Metrolink train 111 that infamous Sept. 12, 2008 day at the Chatsworth, California station just prior to the collision taking place, I found a related article: “Deadly Chatsworth Metrolink crash investigations coming to a close” of Jan. 21, 2010 written by Nicole Howley at

    Conveyed in said article essentially was that records had indicated that the conductor aboard the passenger train in question and presumably having had a clear view of the westbound signal aspect at Control Point Topanga, had communicated to Metrolink train 111 engineer Robert Sanchez via radio that the above-referenced signal was displaying green and that the conductor had issued an “all-clear” communication, in effect, indicating to the Metrolink engineer that said train was “cleared” to depart the station. It was further stated in this article that three eyewitnesses (two train enthusiasts and a security guard) that were present on the station platform then provided testimony to incident investigators (presumed after-the-fact) that said westbound signal light at Control Point Topanga was green. This information aligns with the information provided by said conductor.

    Meanwhile, Howley mentioned that this ran counter to the then National Transportation Safety Board’s determination which, according to Howley, was the “exact opposite.”

    It is critically important to know if upon this radio transmission being made if engineer Sanchez initiated a horn warning prior to his train departing Chatsworth Station in direct response to the conductor’s radio transmission itself, that is, regarding the color of the signal in question. That said, without re-reading the NTSB’s report Railroad Accident Report RAR-10/01 report associated with this incident, I cannot say at this time if this information was ever brought forth in the report in question.

    Speaking to this, if Metrolink engineer Sanchez had initiated a horn warning subsequent to him moving his train beyond the station platform, if this turns out to have in fact been the case, there is a real possibility that this action could have been in response to the conductor’s radio transmission being sent.

    Anyway, to recap: The conductor radioes engineer that westbound signal light at Control Point Topanga was green. No documented confirmation that engineer received that communication. Three eyewitnesses present that day gave testimony that the signal light in question was green thereby aligning with the information conveyed via the Metrolink train conductor’s radio transmission. Train departs Chatsworth Station, runs past a signal light that was reported to be red (that is, based on a thorough investigation being conducted). Said train plows through the trailing-point-switch-points at Control Point Topanga (the west end) that were, according to official reports, aligned for the siding at Topanga and thereby breaks the switch-point hardware. Seconds later Metrolink train 111 collides head-on with UP train LOF65-12 of Sept. 12, 2008.

    “Deadly Chatsworth Metrolink crash investigations coming to a close” article link here:

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