BLE disputes NTSB conclusion of 'crew error' in Conrail fatality

BLE blames faulty signals, not veteran crew, as cause

The BLE Safety Task Force is taking exception to a report released by the National Transportation Safety Board regarding the January 17, 1999, accident in Bryan, Ohio, which took the life of a BLE member.

Engineer Roger Bell, 56, of BLE Division 457 (Toledo, Ohio), was killed when his train hit the rear end of another Conrail train in dense fog. The collision took place at MP 337.2 on the number 1 track on Conrail's mainline of the Dearborn Division, Chicago Line. Conductor and UTU member Raymond E. Corell, 52, was also killed.

The NTSB report concludes that all signals and equipment were functioning properly and, therefore, the train crew was at fault in the accident.

"(T)he probable cause of the this accident was the failure of the crew to comply with restrictive signal indications while operating at or near maximum authorized speed in dense fog," NTSB report determined.

However, the BLE Safety Task Force, in filings before the NTSB decision was reached, noted that prior to the accident, some engineers reported that the signals in question may not have been properly working. This information was reported to the carrier, but Conrail did not report it to the Federal Railroad Administration.

In fact, a signal just west of the point of impact was reported dark less than 24 hours after the accident. In addition, there was a false positive reported to Conrail management at MP 338.1W -four months prior to the accident - which was not reported to the FRA.

"(T)hroughout the post-accident investigation, many co-workers expressed a great deal of concern that the signals were not working properly, because they believe it was highly unlikely the crew could have missed the indication of the signal," the BLE report stated. "The crews and supervisors in the area stated that the engineer and conductor were the most efficient on the property.

"The cause of this accident may never be fully known or understood," the BLE report continued. "Although we always rely on factual data in accident investigations, the data collected does not adequately address why both crew members with close to 30 years experience would strike the rear-end of a train going 58 mph. The crew had an excellent work record as presented by everyone interviewed."

The BLE report further noted that Conrail, over the years, has had the lowest amount of false positives reported to the FRA in the industry. The Safety Task Force concluded, "Signals that have been reported problems should have a standard procedure to make sure they are corrected and followed up. There has to be a better method of accountability and follow up when defects are reported."

The Safety Task Force concluded that the cause of the accident could have been signal failure and not train crew error, as the NTSB concluded.

BLE members familiar with the crew and the specific area of track where the collision occurred disputed the NTSB's findings in an article published in the Toledo Blade newspaper.

"Knowing the crew, I don't think it happened that way," said Kevin Campbell, former local chairman of BLE Division 457 (Toledo) and a retired Conrail engineer who worked the Chicago-Toledo run earlier the day of the fatality. "There had to be something else involved."

Mike Handy, a member of BLE Division 4 (Toledo) and a student engineer under Brother Bell's guidance until several weeks before the crash, told the Toledo Blade that the veteran engineer stressed constant vigilance while working on the railroad, especially in fog.

"It does only take a second to miss a signal," said Handy, who is now a Norfolk Southern engineer. "But you've got two guys up there who each had 30 years experience. I don't believe they missed the signals. Even if you just think you may have missed a signal, you slow down."

In its report, the NTSB issued a safety recommendation to the BLE, asking BLE to advise its members of the importance of complying with operating rules in reduced visibility conditions. The NTSB also concluded that a back-up safety system, such as positive train separation, would have helped prevent the collision.


2001 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers