Unheeded recommendations might have prevented deadly Amtrak crash: NTSB

"Anytime our recommendations aren’t heeded, of course, I’m upset."

June 30, 2022, 10:42 AM

An Amtrak train was traveling 87 mph when it plowed into a dump truck at a Missouri railroad crossing, killing four people and injuring 150, officials said.

Jennifer Homendy, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said Wednesday that after analyzing information from its event recorder, federal investigators have determined that the train was traveling 89 mph about a quarter-mile out from the crash, when the horn started blowing, and 87 mph at impact.

The speed limit at that crossing is 90 mph, according to Homendy.

The crash unfolded at 12:43 p.m. Monday, when the Amtrak train -- comprised of two locomotives, six coach cars, a cafe car and a baggage car -- crashed into the rear of a truck hauling aggregate, or crushed rock, to a nearby Army Corps of Engineers project. The collision caused the train to completely derail, sending the locomotive and cars toppling onto their sides, according to the NTSB.

A satellite image made on June 28, 2022, of an Amtrak train that derailed near Mendon, Mo., after colliding with a truck the previous day.
Maxar Technologies

The train was en route from Los Angeles to Chicago with 275 passengers and 12 crew members on board at the time of the crash, Amtrak said. Three people aboard the train were killed and 150 passengers and crew were injured. A person in the dump truck was also killed.

The dead passengers were identified on Wednesday by the Missouri State Highway Patrol as Binh Pham, 82, of Kansas City, Missouri, and Rochelle Cook, 57, and Kim Holsapple, 56, both of Desoto, Kansas. The driver of the dump truck who was killed was identified as Billy Barton II, 53, of Brookfield, Missouri, according to the highway patrol.

Homendy said the crash occurred at what she described as a "passive crossing" that was not controlled by railroad crossing bars, flashing warning lights or bells. She said there is only stop sign at the crossing.

She also expressed frustration that previous NTSB recommendations to upgrade passive crossings to "active crossings" -- ones that are controlled by crossing bars, lights and bells -- have not been heeded.

Several passenger cars and the engines of an Amtrak train rest on their sides after the train hit a truck at a crossing, June 28, 2022, near Mendon, Mo.
Tribune News Service via Getty Images

"Anytime our recommendations aren’t heeded, of course, I'm upset because we see tragedy after tragedy after tragedy and numerous fatalities and injuries," Homendy said. "It's very frustrating for our investigators, very frustrating, when they are on scene and they know what would have prevented this."

She said the cost of upgrading the crossing grade where the wreck occurred would have cost roughly $400,000.

"I do not have concerns about mechanical failure about the train, any mechanical issues with the train. We do not have concerns about the track," Homendy said. "Our concerns are very focused on this grade crossing, the approach to the grade crossing and survivability after an accident."

Homendy said she confirmed with the director of the Missouri Department of Transportation that the location was on a list of crossings they wanted to upgrade.

She said the funds to upgrade the crossing would come from Chariton County, the state and the BNSF Railway Co., which owns and operates the track.

Workers chat behind the remnants of the vehicle where an Amtrak train derailed on June 27, 2022, in Mendon, Mo.
Chase Castor/Getty Images

Homendy, however, noted that there are 3,500 similar passive railroad crossings in Missouri -- or about half of the state's railroad crossings.

Nationwide, there are 130,000 passive railroad crossings, Homendy said.

The NTSB also recommended in 1998 that roadway vehicles include technology that could alert drivers to the presence of a train on an approach to a grade crossing.

"We still don’t see action on that. It’s been 24 years and that recommendation is still as important today as it was in 1998. Lives could be saved," Homendy said.

A worker looks over a dump truck that collided with an Amtrak train, causing it to derail, June 27, 2022, near Mendon, Mo.
Charlie Riedel/AP

Mike Spencer, a farmer in the Mendon area, told ABC affiliate station KMBC in Kansas City, Missouri, that he's warned local officials that the crossing was dangerous, particularly for drivers unfamiliar with the crossing. Spencer said the crossing has a steep incline that rises 6 feet and because the railroad tracks sit at an angle, it's difficult to see approaching trains.

Spencer said he was once almost hit by a train at the same crossing.

"I was afraid this was going to happen to somebody that was not really familiar with the crossing and how to approach it," Spencer said. "It's just a nightmare. I look at this and I just can't believe it."

Spencer said he has been working with the Chariton County commissioners to make some safety changes at the crossing and others in the area. He said he thought the changes were going to be made in 2021, but they were put off.

Homendy said she interviewed Spencer on Wednesday to hear his concerns and spoke to a county commissioner about plans in the works to upgrade the railroad crossing. She said she was going to hold a meeting Wednesday night with all parties involved in the crash, including Amtrak and representatives of the BNSF Railway Co.

"We might not have a plan tonight, but certainly we should walk away from here with what are the next steps we're going to take to make sure the next person does not die,"

Homendy reiterated Wednesday that the NTSB plans to look into the steep incline as part of its investigation. She said investigators plan on Thursday to reconstruct the dump truck's approach to the railroad crossing by using a similar vehicle.

"There's a lot resting on a driver to be able to see a train at these crossings, particularly when there's such a steep incline," Homendy said.

Meanwhile, a law firm announced Wednesday that it has been hired by a Kansas couple who was injured in the crash.

Kristofer Riddle, a partner at the Clifford Law Offices in Chicago, said his firm is launching its own investigation into the crash as part of a pending lawsuit against Amtrak and the company that owned the dump truck involved in the crash.

"Uncontrolled grade crossings are inherently dangerous," Riddle said in a statement. "Clifford Law Offices will conduct its own investigation into what occurred, but inevitably negligence is involved, and the stakes are very high when a high-speed passenger train is involved."

Clifford's law firm was part of a legal team that won a $16.75 million lawsuit against Amtrak in a 2017 train derailment in DuPont, Washington, that killed three people and injured 65. The law firm is also suing Amtrak and the BNSF Railway Co. on behalf of 40 passengers injured in a 2021 train derailment near Joplin, Montana.

"We continue to receive inquiries from others who were aboard the train in Missouri," Riddle said. "People want answers, and they deserve answers."