THOMPSONTOWN, Pa. (WHTM) – On January 14, 1988, Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail) train TV-61 traveled west on Platform 2 of the Harrisburg-Pittsburgh Main Line from Harrisburg to Chicago. Conrail freight train UBT-506 traveled on platform 1 from Altoona east via Harrisburg to Baltimore. Each train had a crew of three – a conductor, an engine driver and a brakeman.
Due to cold-related problems on platform 2, TV-61 was diverted to platform 1 at a slip switch near Newport. The plan was for the train to be moved back to platform 2 at the Thompsontown junction. Eastbound trains on Platform 1 were to stop and wait for the transition to complete.
Get daily news, weather, breaking news and notifications straight to your inbox! Sign up for the abc27 newsletter here
But train UBT-506 didn’t stop, and the two trains collided head-on near Thompsontown, Juniata County, at a combined speed of about 70 miles per hour.
Four people died in the crash:
Engineer Melvin Russell Curry (UBT-506)
Brakeman Francis Joseph Madonna (UBT-506)
Engineer Russell Paul Henderson (TV-61)
Brakeman Charles Stephen DeSantis (TV-61)
Conductors Jerry Lynn Haselbarth (UBT-506) and Donald Leroy Hull (TV-61) survived with minor injuries.
In addition to the fatalities, damage to trains and tracks has been estimated at $6,015,000 in 1988, or about $15,429,853 today.
On February 14, 1989, the National Transportation Safety Board released its report on the accident. They addressed many deficiencies in railroad operations, including understaffing and lack of backup dispatcher support, deficiencies in the computerized tracking control system, problems with the safety back-up systems in locomotives, Conrail management and supervision policies, and the unpredictable nature of train operations coupled with irregular shift scheduling . But in the report’s summary, investigators focused on the root cause:
“The National Transportation Safety Board notes that the probable cause of this accident was the sleep deprivation of the engineer and other crew members of train UBT-506, resulting in their inability to stay awake and alert and consequently failure to comply with restrictive signaling aspects. “
The report goes on to say, “The Safety Board believes there is ample evidence supporting the conclusion that the crew members of UBT-506 did, in fact, fall asleep some time prior to their approach to CP Thompson.”
A major factor in this sleep deprivation was the railroad’s irregular timetable practice. As the report states, “At home, the engineer and brakeman could never be sure when they would have to return to work… Away from home, the engine driver’s reporting times were just as unpredictable.” Consequently, the Board noted, it was very likely that the engineer and brakeman on UBT-506 each slept less than two hours in the 24 hours prior to the crash.
The problem was compounded by the monotony of the journey. The report states: “More than 2 hours after leaving Altoona, the engineer and brakeman of the UBT-506 were subjected to the steady roar of the diesel engine at full throttle, as well as the sound and movement of the locomotive rolling across the track, with little variation in the.” Speed… There was little the engineer had to do to stay alert and awake.”
The train driver was also effectively immobilized by having to keep his foot on a “dead man’s” foot pedal without the train braking automatically. Lack of sleep, monotony, inability to change positions, and roaring engines added up to a deadly combination.
What has happened in the 35 years since then? Computerized tracking systems, like much software, have come a long way, with more networking and GPS tracking to avoid collisions. Railroad companies are now recognizing sleep deprivation as a problem, and some are offering programs to employees to prevent problems from arising. But it’s not a problem that looks like it’s going away anytime soon. The Bureau of Labor Statistics states the following in its Online Guide to Career Prospects:
“With trains running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, railroad workers’ schedules can vary and include nights, weekends and holidays. Most work full-time, with some working more than 40 hours a week. Federal law mandates a minimum number of rest hours for train operators.”
And a 2017 survey by the Centers for Disease Control lists railroad workers as the third most sleepers in the county, with 52.7% of them not getting the recommended amount of sleep. (“Other” transport workers rank second at 54%, and communications equipment operators rank first at 58.2%.)
To read the NTSB report on the crash, Click here.
To read the CDC report, Click here.
To read the BLS online workbook entry on railway work, Click here.
https://www.abc27.com/history/on-this-date-the-thompsontown-train-wreck/ On this date: The Thompsontown train wreck