The failures of a freight train company and a city to mitigate known safety hazards at a Biloxi, Miss., grade crossing is the probable cause of a fatal crash there, the National Transportation Safety Board said in a report issued August 7.
According to the accident report, a chartered ECHO Transportation motorcoach carrying 49 senior citizens to a casino March 7, 2017, grounded on a high-profile grade crossing in Biloxi. As the motorcoach driver tried to free the vehicle from the railroad tracks, a CSX freight train approached.
Once the engineer realized that the motorcoach might not clear the tracks, he put the train into an emergency stop about 502 ft west of the crossing. About 14 seconds later, the train had slowed to around 19 mph and hit the left side of the motorcoach, pushing it 259 ft down the tracks before coming to a stop. The motorcoach was still in contact with the lead locomotive.
Four passengers were killed in the crash; the driver and 37 passengers were injured. No one on the CSX train was injured.
According to the NTSB report, 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.
A String of Groundings
Track maintenance work in 2014 actually increased the crossing’s vertical profile and led to more frequent vehicle groundings at the accident location. The NTSB concluded that the Main Street grade crossing had been unsafe for certain types of vehicles for several years before the fatal March 2017 crash.
In the three years before the crash, the NTSB says that there were 23 known vehicle groundings there. It says that although CSX Transportation and the City of Biloxi were aware of this number of 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.”
Little Time for Evacuation
The NTSB report says that as soon as he became aware of the approaching train, the motorcoach driver opened the vehicle’s loading door and told the passengers to evacuate. Due to their age and limited mobility, however, the evacuation was slow and the aisle became congested. Only six passengers had safely exited before the train hit the bus.
The NTSB said that inadequate guidance from the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) on how to mitigate risks associated with high-vertical-profile grade crossings contributed to the crash. It 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 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 also recommended that the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) establish communication channels with local municipalities, particularly the City of Biloxi, to monitor the safety of grade crossings, focusing on incidents of vehicle groundings. The MDOT also should help municipalities improve the safety of high-risk grade crossings.