Federal investigators blame driver, brakes for Amtrack crash
December 11, 2012
A National Transportation Safety Board hearing examining a collision at a train crossing in the Nevada desert in June 2011 concluded on Tuesday the accident between an Amtrak passenger train and a tractor-trailer could have been prevented if the truck driver had stopped in a timely manner and if the brakes on his rig worked properly.
A third cause addressed by the safety board said the shortcoming in the passenger rail car side strength led to five deaths on the train. The NTSB conducted a hearing in Washington, D.C. to determine the cause of the accident and to make recommendations.
At about 11:19 a.m. on June 24, 2011, a 2008 Peterbilt hauling two side-dump trailers and heading north on U.S. Highway 95 approached the railroad crossing at about the same time a westbound Amtrak train No. 5, the California Zephyr, was also entering the crossing from the northeast. The Amtrak train consisted – in descending order -two locomotive units, a baggage car, a crew car, three coach cars, a lounge car, a dining car and three sleeper cars.
In addition to the deaths of a train conductor and four passengers, the accident killed the truck driver, Larry Valli, 43.
The truck and trailers were owned by John Davis Trucking of Battle Mountain.
The NTSB investigation centered on Valli’s inattention to the railroad crossing warnings, fatigue and cellphone use before the accident.
Valli, who had worked for the trucking company for less than a year, routinely used a cellphone while driving, the NTSB reported. According to the report that covered eight hours before the accident, Valli made 30 outgoing calls, received one and allowed four to go to voicemail. An incoming call 2 minutes before impact went to voicemail. The report also showed Valli made four calls to orthopedic clinics within three hours of the accident. Valli had had hurt his ankle and was told by a physician he had Achilles tendonitis.
The NTSB also stated it considered Valli’s sleep patterns, but since he lived alone, investigators could not determine the amount of sleep he received on work nights.
Dr. Jana Price, who reported on the human performance aspect of the investigation, said he had the opportunity to sleep about 7 1/2 hours a day, but according to his girlfriend, he usually went to bed from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. His normal work day was a 12-hour shift beginning at 2:30 a.m. The NTSB also concluded Valli’s ankle injury could have affected his sleep pattern.
The NTSB said Valli did not slam on his brake until 300 feet before the railroad crossing, leaving skid marks on the northbound lane. According to the investigation, the crossing lights activated 30 seconds at 2,400 feet before the accident, and the grade crossing gate arm was down at least 18 seconds (1,500 feet) before impact.
Price said within 930 feet or 11 seconds, Valli would have seen the grade crossing signals and arm and also a grade warning sign along the highway.
“It (signal and gate crossing arm) was clearly visible at this point, and the train would have been visible at this point,” said NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman. “There was no evidence he tried to stop the truck 6-7 seconds after passing the (grade warning) sign.”
An NTSB report released in September stated the Amtrak engineer witnessed the accident and told the Nevada Department of Public Safety that the truck was approaching the crossing “at a high rate of speed, tires smoking.”
From video and reports from the Amtrak crew, the train’s horn sounded and the crossing gates were lowered to block highway traffic.
Board members also heard a detailed account of the trucking firm’s maintenance record on the tractor-trailer rig that was pulling two sidecars. In the summary, the NTSB said if John Davis Trucking of Battle Mountain would have performed maintenance of the brakes, that could have prevented the accident which killed six people, including the driver of the truck, a railroad conductor and four passengers.
Discussion centered on some witnesses who said the crossing arm was not fully engaged or down, but video from the Amtrak engine and a fellow trucker driver following Valli appear to discount those charges. They referred to the driver, who they interviewed.
“When he noticed that the accident truck was not slowing, he looked to see if the signal was working,” stated the witness in the NTSB’s September report. “He saw the lights flashing and saw the cross arm down. The witness said that he was about 300 yards behind the accident truck at the time of the crash.”
Hersman also said it’s apparent the truck’s brakes had not been maintained properly.
Jennifer Morrison, who conducted the examination of the tractor-trailer’s braking system at the Nevada Department of Transportation’s District facility in Fallon the following week, said she discovered nine out of adjusted or inappropriate brakes, two mismatched or incorrect brake chambers, 11 worn drums and and three mission or disconnected sensors.
Furthermore, the NTSB said Valli, when he applied to John Davis Trucking for a job, listed three commercial motor vehicle (CMV) employers in a three-year period; however, additional information revealed 10 jobs during the previous 10 years including seven CMV employers.
Gary Van Etten, who conducted this part of the hearing, said Valli held as many as 30 different jobs, 22 CMV jobs from 2002-2011.
“Most are not listed on the John Davis application,” Van Etten said.
Records also showed Valli received three speeding tickets while employed by John Davis Trucking and had received a total of nine speeding tickets during a 10-year period prior to the accident. Valli also had eight licenses suspensions in the same 10-year period and was involved in two accidents.