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