Monday, August 20, 2018

Some Answers About the Panhandle Cornfield Meet of 2016

A “cornfield meet” in railroad parlance is a head-on collision between two locomotive engines.  Needless to say, such occurrences are avoided if at all possible.  But on the morning of June 28, 2016, two freight trains collided head-on in the Texas Panhandle, killing three people and causing an estimated $16 million in damage.  At the time I blogged about it, the only information available was news reports.  A few weeks later, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued a preliminary report on the accident.  While the NTSB has not made public any additional data on the accident since then, the preliminary report makes clear that human error was likely at fault.
The BNSF line through the town of Panhandle is a single-track line, and two-way traffic is managed with a series of sidings.  The dispatchers, probably in the Fort Worth regional train control center, planned to switch the westbound train to a siding near the town, where it would remain while the eastbound train passed by on the main line.  If the eastbound train arrived in the area of the siding too soon, before the westbound train had time to move completely from the main line to the siding, two signals were set along the main line west of the eastern switch, where the westbound train was going to leave the main line for the siding.  The first signal the eastbound train encountered was solid yellow, which means for the engineer seeing the signal to slow the train to a maximum of 40 MPH and be prepared to stop at the next signal.  The second signal was set to red, which forbids the engineer from moving any part of the train past the red signal. 

So the plan was for the eastbound train to slow down at the yellow signal and stop at the red signal, while the westbound train arrived at the eastern switch and eventually cleared the main line by running onto the siding.

What happened instead was this.  Before the dispatchers had a chance to change the eastern switch from the main line to the siding, the eastbound train passed the yellow signal on the main line going at 62 MPH and the red signal at 65 MPH, heading through the switch on the main line straight for the westbound train.  When the engineer on the westbound train saw what was happening, he managed to jump from the cab.  But his conductor died in the resulting crash, as well as the engineer and conductor on the eastbound train.  The NTSB report somewhat ruefully notes that positive train control (PTC) was scheduled to be installed on this section of track later in 2016, although planned PTC installations have suffered repeated delays in the past.

PTC is a semi-automated system that promises to reduce the chances for human error in train operations.  A PTC system would have figured out that the two trains were heading toward a collision and would have at least slowed them down, if not preventing the accident entirely.  As it stands, the physical evidence points responsibility for the accident toward the crew of the eastbound train, as they failed to respond to the clearly visible yellow and red signals in time. 

We may never know what distracted them, but people make mistakes from time to time.  And some mistakes exact a fearful penalty. 

While even one death due to preventable causes is a tragedy, some context to this accident is provided by a slim volume I have on my shelves:  Confessions of a Railroad Signalman, by James O. Fagan, copyright 1908.  It was written at a time when railroad-related fatalities (passengers and railroad employees combined) were running at about 5,000 a year, a much higher rate per train-mile than today.  Fagan’s concern was that railroad employees of his day had to deal with on-the-job pressures that encouraged them to take risks and shortcuts that flouted the rules, and that the management system was ill-equipped to discipline misbehaving employees. 

While much has changed in railroading since 1908, any system that relies on a human being’s alertness can still fail if the person’s attention flags.  And that seems to be what happened outside Panhandle, Texas on that summer morning in 2016. 

If and when PTC is installed on most stretches of U. S. railways, the hope is that fatal and costly accidents will decline to even lower levels than what we see today.  The limiting factor after that will be mechanical malfunctions, perhaps, or dispatching errors at a high enough level to overrule the PTC system.  In any case, we can expect rail travel and shipping to be even safer than it is now, which compared to 1908 is pretty safe already.

Machines and systems are deceptively solid-looking.  It doesn’t seem possible that thousands of tons of steel rolling stock and rails can change very fast.  But the way it’s used can change, and PTC promises to do that.  Eventually, I suppose that the nation’s entire rail system will be run by computers and will resemble nothing so much as a giant version of a tabletop model train, running smoothly and without collisions or hazards.  Of course, automobile drivers will still manage to stop on grade crossings and people will walk on train trestles, so those types of accidents can’t be prevented even by PTC.  To eliminate those types of accidents, we’d have to tear up the whole system and rebuild it the way the English built their rail systems from the start:  fenced-off railroad property, virtually no grade crossings (tunnels and bridges instead), and other means to keep people and trains permanently separated. 

But I suspect we as a society are not that exercised to eliminate the last possible railroad fatality from the country.  So instead, we will enjoy whatever benefits PTC brings along and hope that we personally can stay out of the way of the trains. 

And modern-day cornfield meets will at last join their ancestors as a historic footnote, a quaint disaster that simply can’t happen anymore.  Like soldiers dying on the last day of a war, the crew members who died in the 2016 accident may be among the last to depart in that singularly violent way.  But for those of us who remain, and whose continued survival depends on our being alert, whether behind the throttle of a locomotive or the wheel of a car, this story is a good reminder to keep awake and pay attention.

Sources:  The NTSB report on the June 28, 2016 Panhandle, Texas accident can be found in the agency’s listing of railroad incident reports at  For those with a certain type of morbid curiosity, there is a collection of silent movies of three or four intentionally-staged cornfield meets between steam locomotives that can be viewed on YouTube at  Confessions of a Railroad Signalman was published by Houghton-Mifflin. 

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