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Historic Railway Disasters
24 Mar 99



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USA: Questions remain unanswered in Amtrak crash

Unanswered questions have continued to tax investigators probing the events surrounding the wreck of the

Photo: AP Photo
Crash investigators simulate the accident
'City of New Orleans' on Monday March 15, 1999.

Eleven people died in the accident which occurred near Bourbonnais, Illinois at about 21.47. The Amtrak train was close to 2 hours into its overnight run to New Orleans when it struck a flatbed semi-trailer truck carrying heavy steel rods. The truck had just left the nearby Birmingham Steel Corporation's mill when it entered the crossing on McKnight road into the path of the oncoming train.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), in trying to establish what happened must address an number of questions in the face of conflicting evidence. Central to their inquiries is at what point the truck moved onto the crossing - before, during or after the warning bells and lights had started.

  • There is physical evidence - tyre tracks which may have been made by the truck the angle of the truck at the moment of impact and crossing gates which had been sheared off suggest that the the truck may have zig-zagged its way through the crossing.
  • At least two of the witnesses who have been interviewed by the NTSB have indicated that the truck entered the crossing while the lights were flashing, but before the gates had descended.
  • Another witness, who speaks little English, has been interviewed twice. In his first interview, he seemed to suggest that the truck entered the crossing before the lights began to flash. His second interview has been interpretted as indicating that it entered after the lights came on.
  • The train's engineer is reported to have said that the truck was on the crossing as the lights were flashing. He has only recently been discharged from hospital and NTSB investigators are waiting to interview him again.
Another issue that the NTSB will address is the role of the fuel tanks in the ensuing fire. Diesel fuel from the locomotives fed the flames which incinerated the sleeping car in which all of the deaths occurred. Modern US passenger locomotives are fitted with specially strengthened fuel tanks carried inboard and which intended to maintain their integrity in a crash.

The crash at Bourbonnais is believed to be the first train/truck accident in which rail passengers have been killed. The crossing is on tracks owned by the Illinois Central Railroad and is used by 40 trains and around 1800 road vehicles each day. It has been the site of three other fatalities, in 1964, 1968 and 1988.

Earlier reports:

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VIA Rail passenger train collides with freight cars

30 Jan 2000
No room for complacency on crossings despite fewer accidents

30 Jan 2000
Where does corporate responsibility go now?

29 Jan 2000
71 hurt as trains collide

29 Jan 2000
Metrolink train derailed by oversized load

28 Jan 2000
Prohibition notice upheld by tribunal after Ladbroke Grove railway accident

27 Jan 2000
Passenger and freight trains collide in north west Russia

26 Jan 2000
Montana Rail Link and I&M Rail Link Launch New Highway-Rail Safety Program

21 Jan 2000


Full Coverage

Train evidence is tested again
Chicago Tribune 23/03/99

Evidence at odds with eyewitness account
Chicago Tribune 18/03/99

Vehicles on Tracks a Train Problem

National Transportation Safety Board
Home page

Related items

Tragedy on train 59
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Danger ahead! Feature

Images from Boubonnais

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created on: March 24, 1999

Copyright © David Fry 1999

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