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Update on Union Pacific Rail Accident in Commerce, California
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 Update on Union Pacific Rail Accident in Commerce, California

The National Transportation Safety Board today released the following factual information on the investigation into the Union Pacific rail accident, June 20, 2003, in City of Commerce, CA.

(Note: All information is preliminary and subject to change as the investigation proceeds.)

Investigators from the NTSB's regional office in Gardena, CA, arrived on scene, June 20, shortly after the accident occurred. In the subsequent days they have been examining the rail cars and equipment, the track and train route, documenting communications among Union Pacific staff, and reviewing established railroad procedures. Investigators also have been interviewing train crews and other railroad personnel involved in the accident.

Accident Summary

On June 20, 2003, at about 11:58 a.m. (PDT), 28 of 31 cars of a Union Pacific (UP) freight train derailed after running loose (without locomotives) for 28 miles. The cars became loose as they were being prepared for switching in the UP's Montclair rail yard. The derailment occurred as the runaway cars entered a siding in the City of Commerce, CA. During the course of the derailment, some of the cars and their cargo impacted nearby residences destroying two houses and damaging several others. Thirteen people suffered minor injuries and were transported to local hospitals. There were no fatalities. There was no hazardous materials release and no fire. About 150 people were evacuated from the area because of broken gas and water lines.

Initial Timeline

According to information from UP, the two-man crew for the train, a mixed freight train 2,281 feet in length, weighing 3,883 tons, came on duty 5:45 a.m. on Friday, June 20. After a short job briefing, they boarded the train, which consisted of three locomotives and 69 cars, performed an initial air brake test and departed the UP yard in Los Angeles, heading east for the Montclair rail yard in Montclair, CA.

The engineer told investigators that the train handled fine en route and that he experienced no delays. The train entered the UP's City of Industry rail yard where 38 cars were detached for switching in the nearby area. The train then departed the City of Industry yard and the crew reports that they did not experience any problems with train handling. When the train reached the Montclair rail yard, a conductor for the yard switching crew instructed the inbound train to proceed to the east end of the yard, disconnect the locomotives and "hy-ball the brakes" (railroad vernacular for leave the brakes alone we'll take care of them).

Following those instructions, the train crew disconnected their locomotives from the rest of the cars, causing the air brakes on the cars to be automatically applied. The conductor for the yard then began bleeding air off some of the brakes on the freight cars to release the air brakes to expedite the switching operation. As the brakeman from the yard approached the middle of the train, the conductor instructed him to start there (in the middle) and bleed air from the cars eastward. Meanwhile, the yard conductor returned to assist an engineer in bringing a locomotive to the siding to connect with the cars.

The brakeman completed bleeding air from the cars and walked toward the train crew, who had placed one of their locomotives on a storage track and were returning to their remaining two locomotives. As he approached the two crewmen, they asked him if the detached cars were moving. When the yard brakeman looked back, he saw that they had begun to move and he started chasing after them. The yard conductor also noticed the cars moving and began running toward them, telling his engineer to call the dispatcher and advise that the cars were loose.

At 11:33 am, the freight cars (without locomotives) began moving downhill and within one minute passed the west end switch of the Montclair rail yard. The distance from the switch at Montclair yard to the derailment site is approximately 28 miles. The authorized freight train speed limit on this track is 70 mph, and the authorized speed limit to switch tracks at the derailment site is 15 mph.

At 11:44 am, Pomona Police called UP to report cars rolling westbound unattended. At 11:45 am, UP issued a warning to maintenance-of-way crews along the track to stand clear. At this time, the UP Corridor Manager, the Chief Dispatcher and the Assistant Dispatcher on duty report that they were evaluating options and identifying trains on tracks ahead near Los Angeles.

At 11:50 am, the Chief Dispatcher notified the Corridor Manager that there was no place to go but track 4, the track at the switch at City of Commerce where the derailment eventually occurred. At 11:54 am (four minutes before the derailment), wayside detection equipment indicated the runaway cars were traveling at 86 mph. At 11:56 am, a UP employee is reported to have told the Chief Dispatcher that there were homes at the east end of track 4, but the Corridor Manager and Chief Dispatcher said that they did not see any other option. The Assistant Dispatcher is reported to have told the Corridor Manager that he had to "decide right now" because the cars were approaching the switch. The decision was made to divert the cars at City of Commerce to track 4 and the derailment occurred at about 11:58 am. There was no notification from the UP to any local authorities before the derailment.

Work Continues

The investigation is ongoing. Investigators are examining UP procedures and contingency plans. Interviews with UP personnel and reviews of company records are continuing. Additional work will include examining UP's handling of the emergency situation and the rail traffic in the path of the runaway cars.

The investigation is expected to continue for several weeks. Detailed factual reports are expected to be completed within three to six months, and they will be made available in a public docket. An accident investigation report will then be prepared and submitted to Safety Board Members for a determination of probable cause and consideration of possible recommendations to prevent similar accidents in the future.

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Contact: NTSB Media Relations
490 L'Enfant Plaza, SW
Washington, DC 20594