Compiled by Russ Jackson
How did the terrible incident involving Amtrak’s California Zephyr and a speeding truck traveling on US 95 in the Nevada desert happen? There are many theories out there. We have compiled four theories advanced by some rail writers we know. Because two of these writers prefer to be anonymous, we will not disclose who wrote any of them. It’s interesting reading, and none of these theories should be interpreted as being exactly what happened on that fateful day.
Theory 1. “Just for fun, here’s my hypothesis for how the accident events came about–it fits all of the facts I am aware of at this time (again, just for exercise). “Jake” the truck driver (we don’t know his real name yet) has been employed for only a few months out of the Battle Mountain base of the trucking company. His recent record includes driving out of the Reno area and in California. He is familiar with the rail lines across central Nevada and crosses them probably daily at locations from major highway crossings (like the last one ever) to private crossbuck affairs. He has been stuck occasionally waiting for some of the 9000 ft stack trains and considers such delay a nuisance and interruption to his work. That Friday the three empty rigs were heading out to a job location when he spots the headlight of an approaching train about as far from the crossing as he is at that point. Being totally uninterested in trains as anything other than a bother, his first reaction is, ‘I don’t want to be stuck for several minutes for a 9000 footer, let’s gun it and get across before the gates come down.’ Pedal to the metal he kicks the empty rig up well above the 70 mph speed limit, but he soon realizes that the train is approaching the crossing much faster than he expected. As he realizes too late that the gates are coming down and he is still several hundred feet short of the crossing his only option is to jam the brakes and skid over 300 feet (!!!), helpless to do anything else. (The NTSB will, of course, eventually conduct tests that will fairly accurately determine the speed of the truck required to leave a football-field of skid marks and still have enough velocity to penetrate the side of a railroad car rather than being spun off tangentially with only superficial damage).
“He hits the dorm directly behind the baggage car still skidding 20-30 mph with enough force to embed the cab into the car and set off a firestorm. Throw in a little illegal spice, perhaps, that dulls the judgment but helps pass the boring miles of central Nevada day after day and we see the result. Now, coming up, throw in some lawyers who realize that the trucking company is headed straight for bankruptcy before the first $million is even awarded from their insurance company and the need to find deep pockets becomes obvious. Amtrak did nothing wrong–legal speed, all crew tests negative for contraband substances (we hope). UP did nothing wrong–excellent recently-upgraded right of way for the stack trains, all signals and warnings working properly. Nevada department of Highways did nothing wrong–proper signage at the required approach distance, no visibility obstructions, everything properly posted. Add the Nevada DMV and its commercial licensing division to the top of the list of deep pockets for failing to recognize an incompetent and risky commercial driver. The challenge is to convince an ignorant jury, assuming that the case even merits going to trial, that it was obviously mostly the truck driver’s fault but maybe, just maybe, the horn wasn’t quite loud enough on the Amtrak locomotive, maybe the crossing flashers were 1 degree out of alignment, and maybe there was some mud on the RR X-ING sign that could have made it less visible than optimal. Yes, “Jake” is 97% responsible, but Amtrak, UP and Nevada Highways all could have contributed 1% to the accident–now isn’t that only fair? Bingo, deep pockets if an unnecessary trial can be jockeyed and an ignorant jury can be paneled. We hope things never get that far, and nothing will bring back the dead from the tragedy.”
Theory 2. “Go to MapQuest and look at the map and the satellite view of where US 95 crosses the UP north of Fallon, NV. The road coming north where this clown was driving, in the mile and a half before the grade crossing, is facing directly into a three-mile or so tangent track. That driver was staring at the oncoming headlight of #5 almost directly face-on for two minutes or so before the crash. The road in the last 1/4 mile swings left to cross the track at about a 30 degree angle. He still has the oncoming train almost directly in his line of sight, now only approximately 30 degrees to the right in open, flat desert. And the skid starts just 100 yards from the crossing.
“It looks to me like that driver was deliberately racing the train to the crossing, and chickened out at the last moment, when it had already become too late to stop. He also could have turned slightly to the right and taken the truck off the road into salt flats to avoid the collision. One other thing that the map explains is how this truck failed to derail #5—it is simply because the angle of impact is oblique, (I’m guessing) about 30 degrees, almost like a sideswipe. If it had hit at a 90 degree angle, you have to wonder if the train would have been knocked off the rails.”
Theory 3. There is no doubt that sleepy drivers are as dangerous as drunken drivers and have almost as many accidents. Another possible explanation is the monotony of driving often causes drivers not to pay attention as they drive: the so called “white line fever”. But a common problem at grade crossing is people speeding up to beat the train to the crossing. An optical illusion makes large items such as jumbo jets or trains look like they are going slower than they are at a distance. This misjudging of the speed of a train causes many people to be killed at grade crossings even when gates and warning bells are working. A greater mystery to me is how did 2 Superliner cars get destroyed by fire from this accident? More people are killed by fire than collisions in major accidents. It is hard to believe that diesel fuel from this truck could have caused so much fire. The only thing that might be flammable would be the upholstery in the Superliner cars. We may not have answers for over a year while this accident is under investigation. One point that might be made is the type of trucking this driver did, hauling dirt, is paid by the load and not the hour. The result is some of the worse driving by truck drivers is with trucks hauling dirt and waste.”
Theory 4. The tractor part of the tractor-trailer, including its diesel fuel tanks, wound up INSIDE the Superliner Transition Sleeper. Probably vaporization of some diesel fuel at impact caused it to flash into flame immediately. Once that fire got hot enough, it was all over for that car (it was structurally destroyed by the impact, anyway). I doubt that the flammability standards for the upholstery, carpets, trim, and the duct tape that holds many neglected Amtrak cars together meets those on airliners…even airliners from twenty years ago. As for fire completely engulfing the second car and spreading to the third, I’d like to see from the NTSB’s findings, how much LIQUID fuel spread backward from the point of impact, already ignited by the fire in the first car. Those trucks carry a LOT of diesel.
“A quick look at Google Earth suggests that the driver had a lot of time to see the train coming across the flat terrain. Not only that, but at the angle of the highway approaching the tracks for at least two miles before it curves toward the crossing, the truck driver would have been looking almost straight at the train, with its bright headlight. Now, a lot of people are willing to say he may have been tripped up by a mechanical failure, that he was a great guy, that he would have done anything to avoid a crash, that he loved small rodents and would never hurt an insect. But to me, it “feels” like he saw the train coming, decided to race it to the crossing and show his buddies in the two trucks behind him a thing or two. Too late, he realized he had misjudged.
“At least his last moments on earth were full of indescribable terror. Where he’s going, that’ll be his legacy forever.”