A fatal January 2015 grade crossing accident in Gilroy involving a Union Pacific track maintenance vehicle is now, more than a year after the crash, raising major safety questions about how these types of vehicles travel through railroad crossings.
Don Williams, 55, was killed when he crossed the tracks at Masten Avenue in his pickup truck on a green light. He was blindsided by a maintenance-of-way vehicle with an estimated weight of 50 tons that was traveling in reverse from Morgan Hill to Hollister. According to the California Highway Patrol crash investigation and multiple witnesses, the UP vehicle never activated the grade crossing gates or signal lights to warn Williams or other drivers.
Investigations by the CHP and the Federal Railroad Administration concluded the UP driver, Lindberg Thompson, 58, operated negligently and violated several of the company’s own safety policies. There's now a felony warrant out for his arrest.
“The term I would use is ‘madness,’” said Bob Comer, a railroad safety expert who’s investigated more than 400 train collisions over 27 years. He has also testified as an expert witness in train crash investigations. “This is absolute negligence and madness on the part of these people. They know better and yet they were doing it anyhow.”
The accident devastated Williams’ tight-knit family. Emi, his wife of 24 years, says time hasn’t eased the pain.
“He was one in a million,” Emi said through tears.
But beyond the tragic death of Williams, the accident highlights what some experts call a systemic flaw in the way maintenance-of-way vehicles and other rail vehicles operate on American railroads: They don’t always activate the bells and gates at railroad crossings.
“That railroad crossing - it has bells, it has lights - but none of that was working because his machine did not shunt the track,” Comer said. “The wheels did not make electrical contact, so when the driver came to the crossing nothing was working, no bells, no lights, and the gates were up.”
It’s a common problem according the Federal Railroad Administration. The agency just released new safety recommendations as a result of the crash that killed Williams, advising all railroads to review procedures governing how maintenance-of-way vehicles approach railroad crossings.
“Unlike trains, roadway maintenance machines do not always shunt or maintain shunt in track circuits to trigger activation of grade crossing warning device systems and, in most cases, roadway maintenance machines are not designed or built to shunt the track circuit,” the FRA acknowledged in this safety advisory.
19th century technology
The new recommendations remind railroads the activation system is unreliable and that all maintenance-of-way vehicles should approach railroad crossings at slow speeds and prepared to stop if the crossing gates don’t activate. But these are just recommendations, and in fact, there are no federal regulations governing how maintenance-of-way vehicles travel through railroad crossings. The agency leaves it up to each railroad to determine its own safety policies.
Making matters worse, Comer said, is the 19th century technology responsible for ensuring trains and maintenance vehicles activate crossing gates. The track circuit still used to detect trains today was designed when Civil War general Ulysses S. Grant was in the White House.
“This is a device that comes from 1872,” Comer said. “And the railroad administration continues to allow the railroads to use it. This operator that was driving this machine knew that he wasn’t shunting the track, knew that he wasn’t turning on lights and gates at that crossing, and yet he didn’t stop.”
While the FRA hasn’t issued any new regulations, a source at the agency said several railroads have tightened up their procedures when maintenance of way equipment is traversing railroad crossings. The agency declined requests for an on-camera interview, but provided a written statement to NBC Bay Area saying it would consider taking additional action in the future if deemed necessary.
“The Federal Railroad Administration’s investigation found that the January 2015 incident in Gilroy likely could have been prevented,” FRA Administrator Sarah Feinberg said. “We are pushing railroads to verify their employees know they must stop and verify that gates are down before entering a crossing. If FRA finds additional action is necessary to prevent future incidents like this one that occurred in Gilroy, it will not hesitate to take action.”
Data from the FRA shows this problem goes far beyond the Gilroy crash. From January 2010 to November 2015, 187 maintenance of way vehicles have collided with cars, injuring 68 people and killing two, including Don Williams. Multiple videos from across the country posted on YouTube by railroad enthusiasts show rail vehicles passing through grade crossings and failing to activate the bells and gates.
The FRA does maintain data on grade crossing activation failures, but only for trains, so there’s no record of how many times maintenance-of-way vehicles pass through crossings with no activation. According to FRA data, there were 289 activation failures for trains across the country in 2015. 240 people were killed at railroad crossings the same year.
“It is an industry that is regulating itself,” Comer said. “The federal agencies are basically letting this industry do what it wants to do. That means using old technology.”
The FRA’s investigation determined that Williams’ death could likely have been prevented if Union Pacific had followed their internal safety policies.
“The plan to move the 62 pieces of equipment from Morgan Hill to Hollister was flawed in several areas,” the FRA investigation stated. “Notably, the number of pieces of equipment and the distance covered was excessive; with so many grade crossings along the route, no flagging was ordered; and most egregious, the spiker/gager in question should not have been operated in a reverse move, wherein the operator had to rely on side mirrors to see what was ahead.”
Union Pacific’s own policies state that maintenance-of-way vehicles should not be operated in reverse unless it’s emergency or they’re traveling a short distance. But the work crew traveling from Morgan Hill to Hollister had to traverse 12 miles of track.
In addition, according to the Federal Railroad Administration’s accident report, Union Pacific’s crew knew maintenance vehicles often don’t activate crossing gates, so they planned to have all vehicles travel in a gang, bunching up within 50 feet of each other at railroad crossings. The proximity of the vehicles was supposed to ensure they activated crossing gates, and those gates would stay down until the entire crew proceeded through the crossing.
Yet according to the accident reports, the rail vehicle that killed Williams, traveling in reverse with an obstructed side mirror, fell 500 feet behind the vehicle in front of it by the time it reached the crossing at Masten Ave and Monterey Rd. When the gates failed to activate, the driver never stopped, slamming into Williams’ truck as he made a left turn across the tracks on a green arrow, sending it tumbling down an embankment.
“The system just failed,” Emi Williams said. “The light was green, everything was fine. The arms were not coming down, there were no flashing lights, and people were going.”
Witnesses reported there were several other close calls that day involving the same UP work crew, according to the CHP report. One witness told an investigator she was almost hit at an earlier crossing at 6th Street in Gilroy when the gates didn’t activate. The witness said she was about to proceed through the crossing when her husband “yelled at her to stop” just as a “train entered the intersection.”
“The witness told police she ‘did not feel like this was a safe practice and was worried about other vehicles in the area,” the CHP accident investigation stated.
Union Pacific declined an interview request, but issued a written statement to NBC Bay Area, which said in part:
“Immediately following the 2015 incident involving a vehicle on the highway and a maintenance-of-way vehicle, Union Pacific met and began coordination with the Federal Railroad Administration. Union Pacific issued a Critical Safety Alert and conducted a Safety Stand-down where it reviewed the rules regarding maintenance-of-way vehicle operations at road crossings. Union Pacific regularly tests employees that operate maintenance-of-way vehicles to ensure they are current and in compliance with the most updated rules and policies.”
Union Pacific was never fined for the incident. The FRA said no federal regulations were violated, only the company’s internal policies. The only discipline the driver received from UP was two days of mandatory training, according to the FRA investigation. He was not fined, suspended or fired.
Emil Williams said UP offered their condolences, but she doubts the company’s sincerity. She’s now suing the company.
“Is this just the cost of doing business?” Williams asked. “Is this what they’re looking at it as? I don’t know if they understand the devastation that it causes. What is it to them? Who are we to them?”
While the driver who crashed into Williams only got a slap on the wrist by UP, the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s issued an arrest warrant for him in April for felony negligence.
“We evaluated the case and found that there were numerous safety precautions that were not taken by the conductor,” said Traci Mason, the Santa Clara County prosecutor trying the case.
It’s the first time her office has charged someone with that offense, but Mason said it was important to send a message.
“When there are rules and regulations in place they need to be followed,” Mason said. “We do need to ensure that the public is safe, especially when they're crossing railroad tracks.”
NBC Bay Area could not reach Thompson for comment by deadline. Although a warrant was issued for his arrest, Mason said he’s not yet in custody.
Both Comer and Emi Williams said they’re glad to see the driver being held accountable. But they also believe Union Pacific should face consequences. After all, they say UP supervisors approved the flawed safety plan on that day and they knew their vehicles weren’t always activating crossing gates.
“There’s a lot of negligence in this particular incident,” Comer said. “We know that the supervisor knew he was driving it backwards. All the operators knew that they were supposed to stop [at crossings]. And yet they violated all these rules and got a man killed because of their negligence.”