Engineer: Cell phones not a factor in ore train crashThe engineer of one of two ore trains that crashed head-on just outside of Two Harbors in 2010 is taking issue with the National Transportation Safety Board report on the accident, disputing that cell phone use by the train crews was a relevant factor.
By: Tammy Francois, Lake County News Chronicle
The engineer of one of two ore trains that crashed head-on just outside of Two Harbors in 2010 is taking issue with the National Transportation Safety Board report on the accident, disputing that cell phone use by the train crews was a relevant factor.
In an exclusive interview with the News-Chronicle on Wednesday, Dan Murphy, engineer of the northbound train, conceded that he had used his phone on the day of the Sept. 30, 2010, accident, but that the call was less than a minute and in no way interfered with his duties.
Murphy’s account of the call’s details is consistent with NTSB findings, which show him having made a single 33-second call, at 3:29 p.m., 36 minutes before the crash. The NTSB report also states that the southbound crew made calls and texts.
Still, Murphy contends, cell phone use was not a likely factor.
“There’s no cell phone service 5 to 6 miles before the crash site and it
doesn’t resume for 25 miles beyond the site,” he said. “If I had been on the phone at the time of the crash, there would have been dead people.”
Instead, Murphy said, it was his swift action that may have prevented a far worse outcome — contrary the impression the NTSB report gives.
“I took my job seriously,” he said emphatically.
The two trains collided about a quarter-mile south of Highland Siding, an area termed “dark territory” where no signals guide trains, sending five workers to the hospital. The NTSB said the system lacks redundancy and relies too heavily on crews, leaving room for human error.
“Too many accidents have demonstrated that after-arrival track authorities are unsafe operating practices on non-signaled track,” NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman said at the release of the report Feb. 12. “These track authorities are flawed because they rely on flawless human performance. This is why we reiterate — again — our recommendation that the Federal Railroad Administration prohibit the use of after-arrival track warrants for train movements in non-signaled territory not equipped with a positive train control system.”
Hersman also cited the train crews.
“In this investigation, we also saw two recurring issues that affect human performance: fatigue and cell-phone distraction. We have repeatedly seen the deadliness of fatigue and distraction in investigations across all modes of transportation. Operating heavy machinery — trains, planes, ships and more — requires alertness and full attention. It also requires crew coordination and communication.”
The day of the collision, Murphy, his crew, and a train of 118 empty iron ore cars were headed north, just outside of Two Harbors, on a single track. A southbound train had 116 loaded cars and did not have authority to operate on that segment of track. Nevertheless, when Murphy rounded the corner near milepost 13.5, the southbound train was heading his way. He said he took immediate decisive action to stop his train and applied all the braking power the train had.
“I came around that corner doing 39 mph and when the impact occurred I was doing 29. I managed to decelerate 10 mph before we hit,” he said. “The train was in emergency within seconds of the time I saw the other train. It was my action that very possibly saved lives.”
In the seconds before impact, Murphy said he weighed his options. He said he knew he’d be killed if he stayed in his chair, so he considered jumping from the train. He reasoned that the leap, followed by a tumble down the steep embankment, would likely have resulted in his death. Instead, he said he opted to lie down on an outside walkway and brace his feet against the cab of the train, where they acted as shock absorbers upon impact.
The crash has left Murphy and the conductor of his train with ongoing medical issues. Murphy said his conductor’s back was broken in two places. The three men on the southbound train were injured and treated, the southbound engineer sustaining serious injury.
As far as what did cause the crash, Murphy said the NTSB report cited many factors, so no single cause is responsible. However, he agreed with Hersman to say fatigue can be an issue for crews because of the length of their shifts.
“Fatigue could very well have played a part in this. The crew was at the end of a 12 hour shift. The time of the accident was 16:05 — 4:05 a.m. — and they were done at 4:30. They’d been on duty for 11 hours and 35 minutes. And then you’ve got to figure they were up at 1;30 (a.m.) to get to work on time.”
Records show Murphy filed a lawsuit against Canadian National but he declined to discuss it. The railroad’s spokesman, Patrick Waldron, said he wasn’t aware of any suits and said CN is reviewing NTSB’s findings and will be preparing an “appropriate response” in the near future.