A Union Pacific railroad engineer who was killed along with two other train workers in a train crash in Oklahoma last year had a long history of chronic eye and vision problems and could not tell red signals from green and yellow ones, a doctor told federal regulators this week in a hearing on the deadly crash.
The June 2012 crash occurred in a rural area of the Oklahoma panhandle after a 108-car Union Pacific freight train collided with an 80-car westbound freight train, also operated by Union Pacific, setting off a diesel fuel explosion and fire. Each of the trains was carrying one conductor and one engineer when the crash occurred.
“He repeatedly complained that his vision fluctuated and was described as okay one day, not okay the next,” Dr. Mary Pat McKay said at a hearing of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in Washington. The board unanimously determined that the engineer’s poor eyesight was the probable cause of the crash.
Dr. McKay told the NTSB panel that the engineer suffered from cataracts and glaucoma for many years, and that he had visited eye doctors about 50 times in the years leading to the crash. Additionally, he underwent about a dozen corrective eye procedures.
The engineer also complained about his inability to discern critical red and green train signals that control train traffic much the same way they govern auto traffic, the doctor said.
“Had the railroad tested the eastbound engineer’s vision in 2010, medical records demonstrate that he would have failed … any of the standard color vision tests,” she said. Dr. McKay also noted that the crash occurred on a bright, sunny day, which meant the engineer would have had even more trouble judging the lights.
NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman said Union Pacific was responsible for making sure its employees could perform their jobs safely.
“Railroads must pay extra attention to monitoring employees with chronic medical conditions who hold safety-sensitive positions,” Ms. Hersman said. “If an employee can put their life or the lives of others at risk, it is imperative that others take the necessary and appropriate action.”
The NTSB proposed 16 new safety recommendations in light of the crash. Many of the proposed rules called for tightening the frequency and quality of medical screenings for workers in safety-sensitive roles, such as engineers driving freight trains.
Union Pacific disputes the NTSB’s findings, saying that its records “indicate the engineer passed all of the federally mandated vision tests and suggestions that his vision may have contributed to the accident are pure speculation.”
The very statement, however, speaks of the federal government’s chronically weak safety standards if a color-blind engineer with cataracts and glaucoma can pass the required screenings. The statement also reflects the unwillingness of a company to hold itself to any standards higher than the bare-minimum federal requirements.
One NTSB investigator said the collision would never have occurred if Union Pacific used a Positive Train Control system, which reads traffic signals electronically and provides workers with visual and audible warnings when the train is in danger. If the warnings go unheeded, the system automatically applies the brakes.
Pictured above, NTSB recorders expert Doug Brazy briefs Board Member Mark Rosekind at the scene of the Union Pacific freight train accident. Photo by NTSB.