A deadly tour bus crash in Biloxi, Mississippi, that killed four people last year was likely caused by the failure of CSX Railroad and the City of Biloxi to address a railroad crossing they knew to be dangerous, federal investigators said.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said in its Aug. 7 preliminary report of the bus crash that nearly two dozen vehicles have become “grounded” at the crossing where the bus crash occurred last year, yet neither the city nor the railroad took action to correct the hazard.
On March 17, 2017, a chartered bus operated by ECHO Transportation was carrying 49 seniors from Texas to a Biloxi casino when it became stuck on a “high profile” grade crossing at Main St. and Esters Blvd. Just moments after the bus became stuck, a CSX freight train barreled toward it.
The CSX engineer saw the disabled bus and applied the emergency brakes, but it wasn’t enough to avoid a collision with the bus.
The bus driver was in the process of evacuating the bus when the train slammed into its side. Four of the passengers were killed and another 38 were injured, including the bus driver.
According to the NTSB, the crossing where the bus crash occurred dates to at least 1870 and was reconstructed in 1977. The crossing has an unusually high vertical profile, with a steep grade that put vehicles with low ground clearance, such as trucks and buses, at risk of becoming stuck on the tracks.
Maintenance work on the crossing further increased the crossing’s already high vertical profile, making it even more dangerous, the investigators found. In the three years before last year’s bus crash, there were 23 known vehicle groundings there.
“Although CSX Transportation and the City of Biloxi were aware of this high number of safety-critical events, neither acted to mitigate the hazard,” the NTSB announcement stated.
The NTSB also found that inadequate guidance from the Federal Highway Administration on how to mitigate risks associated with high vertical profile grade crossings contributed to the crash.
“This tragedy was preceded by numerous unheeded warnings in the three years leading up to it,” said NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt. “They came in the form of known groundings of other vehicles at the very same grade crossing where the fatal crash occurred. Warnings call for action.”
The NTSB recommended that high-profile grade crossings have clearer, less ambiguous signage so that drivers of all types of vehicles can better determine if they can safely cross without becoming stuck. The agency also recommended better criteria to determine when high-profile grade crossings should be modified or closed.