Capitol Corridor Friday Accident

Special Message to Riders – August 20, 2007 The What, When, and Why

“An apology and a report to Capitol Corridor riders on the events of Friday afternoon and evening, August 17th” from Gene Skoropowski

For those of you who were caught up in the events of Friday afternoon and evening, and there were some two-thousand of you on several trains, I apologize to you for your experiences and your delays. I do not need to tell you that this was the worst series of delays, both in terms of duration and numbers of trains and passengers impacted, in the history of the Capitol Corridor service.

First is my apology to you for your delay, and second is my apology to you for the things that did not go right after the incident, particularly on the communication front.

No sooner had we just printed my latest regular quarterly “Message to Riders” (issue #30), wherein I refer to some days being like encountering ‘The Perils of Pauline’, than the events of Friday made these words harsh reality.

Let me describe to you the events, what was attempted to be done, and what actually happened and why. There are several ‘lessons learned’ that have emerged from this situation that identify things we need to do better.

I welcome any comments, criticisms and suggestions for improvement from any of you that were caught in this event. (trains@capitolcorridor.org, telephone:1.877.9 RIDE CC, regular mail: Capitol Corridor JPA, 300 Lakeside Drive, 14th floor, Oakland, CA 94568)

What happened? At about 3.15 pm, Westbound Capitol Corridor train #541 was traveling towards Oakland from Sacramento on Union Pacific Main Track #2, just south of Suisun-Fairfield Station. At a street crossing on Union Pacific Main Track #1 (the location is identified as MilePost 40.1), three trucks with the special ability to travel on the tracks were being positioned to travel along Main Track #1, to pick up debris along the tracks from recently completed trackwork done by railroad forces in days prior. These vehicles belong to an experienced railroad contractor that Union Pacific had engaged specifically for the debris removal work. At the time train #541 was approaching the crossing on track #2, two-of the three vehicles had been properly mounted on the rails on track #1, and they were awaiting the completion of the mounting of the third vehicle, which was still being positioned on track #1. This is the vehicle which was hit by Train #541. It appears that the vehicle was positioned too far into the clearance envelop of track #2, and was struck by the locomotive of train #541. The incident also damaged adjacent signal indicators.

Union Pacific is investigating in detail the circumstances and conformance to mandatory procedures employed regarding this entire incident. However, it is known that Train #541 had been cleared by dispatchers for travel on Track #2, and was operating according the railroad rules and within authorized speed limits. The contractor and the vehicles getting prepared to work on track #1 had been given permission by the railroad dispatchers to occupy track #1. Union Pacific’s operating and safety rules are very specific about the circumstances, procedures and conditions when tracks may be occupied by any vehicles that are not freight or passenger trains. These operating procedures and safety rules are recognized as among the best and safest in the industry, and they meet or exceed all Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) standards.

As a result of the ensuing collision, Train #541 was stopped and all service on both main tracks was terminated for a five-hour period while emergency crews removed the one contractor employee with a broken arm and the locomotive engineer (removal of the injured locomotive engineer took several hours due to getting access for a stretcher into the cab), and treated the one passenger for minor injuries, and inspected the railroad facilities (track and signals). Some 149 passengers were on Train #541, but also impacted were trains #543, #547, #549, #536, #538, #540, #542, #544, and all later evening trains. During the 5 hour delay, more than 2,000 Capitol Corridor passengers were delayed, many for the full 5 hours.

At about 3.30 pm when an emergency notice went out to all operating people about the magnitude of the collision and the expected magnitude of delay to trains, immediate actions were implemented. Union Pacific Railroad forces were deployed from Roseville to the site. Amtrak supervisors were dispatched to the site. Carl Malvo, Capitol Corridor’s Transportation Officer was at the site and on the phone during the entire event to try to assist Amtrak. An instruction was conveyed by Amtrak to all food service attendants in dining and cafe cars of Capitol Corridor trains already en-route and caught in the delay, to offer food and non-alcoholic beverages to passengers without charge, recognizing that the delay was going to be extensive, although no one anticipated that the delay could be as long as 5 hours, which it was..

Crews were asked to make announcements that an incident had occurred and that the delays would be lengthy. Union Pacific and Amtrak tried to move as many trains as possible into station platform locations to allow passengers to get off the train to try to make alternate travel arrangements. Buses were called to try to build a bus-bridge between Martinez and Suisun-Fairfield Station in an attempt to get passengers to their destinations. At the time buses finally arrived, word was received from Union Pacific that the tracks would be opened shortly. Buses which had boarded passengers transferred them back to trains, only to find out after the buses were released that there was a fuel spill from the truck, and the local fire department would not release the tracks for use until the fuel spill was taken care of. Too many folks, this looked like a saga from the old “Keystone Kops” comedy movies, maybe justifiably so.

Complicating all of this was both the location of the incident, a difficult site along the marsh land in Benicia, and the fact that this occurred on a Friday afternoon (the busiest day for Capitol Corridor travel at the start of the busiest time for travel) during the peak travel hours. Both Union Pacific and Amtrak personnel were caught in heavy traffic on I-80 and I-680 en route to the site. Traffic was so bad that the injured contractor’s employee and the train engineer were removed from the site by helicopter. The attempt to get buses deployed was also complicated because it was peak travel time on a Friday, and the traffic on the roads to the train stations that buses would use were also jammed with congested traffic.

Making the frustration level even higher is that the communication system (electronic boards and telephone lines) were not providing specific information that might have useful to passengers. Only one complaint was received about ‘not being told anything by the train crew’, so I assume that crews told passengers what they knew, which may not have been much. One report from a passenger advised me that the telephone information he was given is that ‘all trains are operating on time’. Other passengers were told that trains would be moving within an hour, when in fact, it was several hours. Clearly, we at the Capitol Corridor and Amtrak need to do a better job of using the resources we already have to provide better, accurate and more frequent information updates.

While I cannot recreate Friday and try to change things for the better, I promise you that we will review every aspect of this incident, and, together with our partners at Amtrak and Union Pacific, we will identify what should be done, by whom, and when, if ever an incident like this occurs again that causes the level of disruption to our service that this incident caused.

I am sorry that this report is so long, but I felt each of you that were caught up in Friday’s event deserve as complete an explanation as I can provide.

Again, I apologize to all of you who were caught up in this incident and its ensuing extensive delays.

Sincerely,

Eugene K. Skoropowski
Managing Director
Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority

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