TULSA, Okla. – Two freight trains were not speeding when they collided in a fiery head-on crash that killed three people in the Oklahoma Panhandle, according to a preliminary federal report released Monday.
The National Transportation Safety Board found that the eastbound train was traveling at 64 mph and the westbound train was at 38 mph when they slammed into each other on June 24 near the town of Goodwell. The speed limit in the area is 70 mph.
Data couldn't be recovered from the lead locomotives, which almost welded together in the white-hot fire that broke out when they crashed, but the NTSB report said it retrieved recorders from engines that were helping push the trains. The agency said it is checking the data to see whether train operators were receiving signals properly.
The agency has said that one of the trains should have turned off the track to allow the other to pass, and it remained unclear Monday why both trains were on the same track. Three of the four people aboard the trains were killed; the fourth jumped from the slower moving train just before the crash and survived.
Damage from the accident was estimated at nearly $15 million, according to the agency. The report found that the eastbound train had 108 cars of mixed freight with a weight of about 6,328 trailing tons. The westbound train had 80 carloads of automobiles and had a weight of about 5,760 trailing tons.
The investigation will take about a year to complete and the agency declined to speculate on other factors that could have caused the collision, NTSB spokesman Terry Williams said.
"We're still looking at the signals, the track, the weather," Williams said. "We're looking at the human, machine and the environment."
A spokeswoman for Omaha, Neb.-based Union Pacific, which operated both trains, declined to comment Monday on the report, instead referring questions to the NTSB. A spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration did not return a message seeking comment.
Even with the preliminary information on the tonnage and speed of the trains, some industry experts said Monday that more details need to be investigated, such as the line of sight between the oncoming trains, condition of the track, the weather and temperature, among other factors.
"I can't come to any conclusions just because of the weight and speed," said former Federal Railroad Administration official Gil Carmichael. "It's either the signal system failed or one of the crew failed."
Jim Scott, owner of Scott & Associates, a railroad operations consulting firm in Kingsport, Tenn., said the faster train should have passed through a signal warning him that he was on the wrong track, and that alert should have been relayed back to the railroad dispatcher.
"Once (the faster train) goes by that signal, every light, bell and whistle in that dispatcher's center goes off and everything on that dispatcher's screen starts flashing red," said Scott, who has 25 years of experience in the industry. "He should have been on that radio hollering at everybody to stop."
The three Union Pacific employees who died in the accident were conductor Brian L. Stone and engineers Dan Hall and John Hall, who were not related. Another conductor, Juan Zurita, escaped virtually unharmed by jumping from his train before they crashed.
The eastbound train, hauling goods from Los Angeles to Chicago, had three lead locomotives and one following. The westbound, taking cars and trucks from Kansas City to Los Angeles, was pulled by two locomotives and pushed by one.
Last month, the NTSB said both trains' brakes appeared normal and that no cellphones were found in the wreckage. The NTSB said it would check the crew members' recent work schedules and rest periods, and also their evaluations.
The agency was also looking into the track's speed rating after a cross-country truck driver said he was "pacing" one of the trains at 68 mph shortly before the crash.
Freight can travel at speeds of up to 80 mph, but only on tracks with the highest ratings for cargo. Passenger trains can travel faster on higher quality rails.