BLE member injured in head-on collision

ALTON, Iowa -- A Union Pacific freight train from Minnesota slammed head-on into an empty grain train near this small northwest Iowa town, killing a conductor and the driver of a van that was parked by the tracks.

Wreckage of the fatal Alton, Iowa, collision.
(Photo by Tim Hynds 1999 The Sioux City Journal. Reprint with permission)

On November 18, five locomotives and 30 cars derailed between the two trains in the collision, said UP spokesman Mark Davis.

The accident occurred along Iowa 60 about 5 miles south of Alton, which is about 40 miles northeast of Sioux City. Both were Union Pacific trains.

The conductor of the freight train, Paul Schmidt, 23, of Boone, Iowa, was killed. The driver of the van, Dale Evans, 45, of Sioux City also was killed.

Jason Haller, 27, a member of BLE Division 369 (Minneapolis, Minn.), was the engineer on the freight train. He was taken to Orange City Hospital after suffering bruises. He was treated and released.

Davis did not know how fast the freight train was traveling, but the speed limit for trains in the area is 49 mph, he said.

"Railroad equipment is extremely heavy, and when you have a collision of this nature, it will be violent," he said.

National Transportation Safety Board officials said the accident could have been prevented if the railroad had implemented positive train separation technology.

"(Positive train separation) can stop a train automatically if there is a human error or a mechanical error," said NTSB spokesman Phil Frame. "We have asked the Federal Railroad Administration to require it. It has been on our 10 most-wanted list of safety recommendations for some time."

The positive train separation equipment includes a safety sensor that would cause trains to shut down or brake if they came too close to another train on the same rail line, Frame said.

The devices can use satellite technology or electronic transponders on the rail line to track train movements. Such devices are used in some Northeast rail lines and in metropolitan areas such as Chicago.

Evans was supposed to pick up two crew members of the empty grain train. According to Diana Deibler, a company spokeswoman, Evans had worked for two weeks for Cimarron Coach of Iowa, a West Des Moines-based van company.

"He was at a bad place at a bad time," sheriff's dispatcher Loren Wilken said.

Davis said a fire broke out, but it was extinguished. Of the cars that derailed, 14 were empty, 10 were filled with sand, three with grain and the others were carrying soybean oil, lard and frozen meat. All the derailed cars and three of the locomotives came off the freight train.

1999 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers