The failures of a freight train company and a city to mitigate known safety hazards at a Biloxi, Mississippi, grade crossing is the probable cause of a fatal crash there, the National Transportation Safety Board said in its report issued Tuesday.
A chartered ECHO Transportation motorcoach carrying 49 senior citizens to a casino March 7, 2017, grounded on a “high profile” grade crossing in Biloxi, when seconds later, as the motorcoach driver attempted to free the vehicle from the railroad tracks, a CSX freight train approached. Although the engineer saw the stranded vehicle and applied emergency braking, the train stuck the motorcoach at 19 mph. Four of the 49 motorcoach passengers were killed in the crash; the driver and 37 passengers were injured. No one on the CSX train was injured.
The final resting position of the CSX train and the ECHO Transportation motorcoach is depicted in this March 7, 2017, photo of the accident scene. (Photo courtesy of Biloxi Police Department)
The Biloxi city street grade crossing, which dated back to at least 1870 and was reconstructed in 1977, had an unusually high vertical profile. Its high vertical grade put low ground clearance vehicles, such as trucks and buses, at risk of being “grounded” on the tracks.
In the three years prior to the crash, following maintenance work that further increased the accident crossing’s already high vertical profile, 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.
“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 said that inadequate guidance from the Federal Highway Administration on how to mitigate risks associated with high vertical profile grade crossings contributed to the crash.
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 their vehicle could safely traverse the crossing.
In the NTSB’s report, the agency called for criteria to determine when an existing high-profile grade crossing should be modified or closed, and for better communication between all the entities involved in the maintenance and safety of grade crossings.
"It will take concerted, coordinated action to proactively address the safety challenge posed by high-profile grade crossings,” said Sumwalt. “And today's findings and recommendations will provide regulators, policy makers and planners with the tools to do just that."
A total of 11 new safety recommendations were made to the following organizations: the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Railroad Administration, the Mississippi Department of Transportation, the City of Biloxi, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, the American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association, the Association of American Railroads and the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association and all Class 1 railroads.
The final report will be available in several weeks. Investigator presentations, findings, probable cause and safety recommendations are available at https://go.usa.gov/xUA4B.
Additional materials related to this investigation, including the accident docket, are available at https://go.usa.gov/xUA45.