Knowing Railroad Terminology Important In Event of Truck-Train Collision

Nov. 1, 2001
KNOWING the rules of the road is essential for tank truck carriers, but knowing the rules of the rails can be just as important, especially when there

KNOWING the rules of the road is essential for tank truck carriers, but knowing the rules of the rails can be just as important, especially when there is an accident involving a tank truck and a train at a rail crossing.

That was the message presented at the meeting of the National Tank Truck Carriers (NTTC) Western Safety Council October 5 in Houston, Texas, by J S Hinton, a Houston transportation consultant with railroad and accident reconstruction experience, and Trey Williams, a Houston attorney specializing in transportation.

When a tank truck and a train have collided, it is essential that the carrier have knowledgeable people on site as quickly as possible to gather evidence in the accident, Hinton said, pointing out that railroads have a battery of experts who respond to accidents.

“The claims department will be there early on,” Hinton said. “Roadmasters usually will be there.”

Carriers who have experts on the scene will be able to gather evidence of the circumstances that surrounded the accident, rather than relying on railroad or law enforcement reports. Experts also will be able to interpret the evidence for accuracy.

For example, rail crossings have information that may not be readily apparent to the untrained eye. It's not unusual for a crossing signal to be working after an accident has occurred. Law enforcement officers who respond to the accident may indicate in their reports that the signal was operating properly. However, there are underlying causes not immediately apparent that may indicate the signal was not working when the truck began to cross the track.

“Tell your drivers they can't trust the signals,” Hinton said. “It is a tremendous burden on drivers to move vehicles across tracks.”

Hinton advised carriers to have their representatives note the Department of Transportation (DOT) crossing number that is posted on a sign or pole at the crossing. “This is the most important thing you can do,” Hinton said.

The sign contains the location number and a Department of Transportation (DOT) toll-free telephone number, 800-772-7677. DOT keeps records of each time the signal has been reported malfunctioning. A history of malfunctioning can be established from the DOT statistics.

Another important part of the investigation is to make note of whistle boards posted along the track. The numbers and letters on the boards indicate rules for sounding warning horns from the engine, based on speed limits, distances from intersections, and other criteria. This information and event recorders on the engines could show that the horns were not sounded properly and failed to warn the truck driver of the approaching train.

Hinton noted that train engines are often equipped with an event recorder, much like the black box in the cockpit of airliners. The monitoring device collects engine performance data that can be used in the investigation. If the engine has the equipment installed, it is required to be in working order and cannot be disconnected.

Investigators should use a camera at the scene, taking photographs that show the driver's view of the crossing and the rail car that finally stops at the crossing after the impact. The former photograph may indicate if the driver's view was limited because of railroad right-of-way obstructions. The latter photo can be used to calculate the speed of the train by where the railcar is located on the crossing in conjunction with the number of railcars in the train and other information.

Other information can be gleaned from railroad timetables that show speed limits for the tracks and from railroad dispatch sheets much like truck driver's hours-of-service logs. The railroad dispatch sheets can be obtained at railroad terminals.

“Carriers really need to have an investigative team that knows the railroad terminology,” Williams said. In addition he advised carriers to determine where high-risk railroad crossings are located, and to find an attorney or other representative in that area who can respond should an accident occur there. “Give that information to your attorney and your insurance company,” he added.