NTSB Report Details Train Car Derailments From Barge Overhanging Railroad Track

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has released its report concerning a collision between a coal train and a barge pushed against the shoreline that was overhanging the railroad track in Galland, Iowa.

The collision took place at 11:43 p.m. November 13, 2021, at Upper Mississippi River Mile 372.

The BNSF train struck the bow rake of a forward barge overhanging the track. It had been part of a tow of four empty barges pushed by the towing vessel mv. Baxter Southern.

Two locomotives and 10 hopper cars loaded with coal derailed, and six of the derailed cars entered the river. Two people on the train sustained minor injuries. Total damage was estimated at $1.9 million.

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The captain of the Baxter Southern said the wind had increased to 15 to 20 mph. with gusts as high as 40-45 mph., making it difficult to maintain the vessel’s heading with the empty barges, the NTSB said. When the pilot arrived at in the wheelhouse, he and the captain reviewed the weather forecast.

The captain said he had originally planned to tie up at Lock and Dam No. 19 (Mile 364) to wait for the wind to decrease, but there were two tows ahead of the Baxter Southern, and he knew those tows would occupy all available mooring space at the lock.
After determining it wasn’t safe to proceed and would be unsafe to try to turn the tow around and find another place upriver to dock, the pilot told the captain there was an area on the right descending bank before the lock where he had previously seen barges pushed up on the riverbank. They then reviewed the vessel’s Rose Point Navigation System, which was set on night-time display mode.

While they saw a magenta dashed line on the electronic navigation chart next to the railroad tracks at Mile 372, both the pilot and captain said they believed it represented a fleeting area and would be safe to push up against the bank within it, the NTSB said. The chart showed railroad tracks along the riverbank but did not provide the distance from the river to the tracks. 

Because of the high winds and nighttime conditions, the captain and pilot decided not to place a crewmember as a lookout on the forwardmost barge to ensure the barges did not cross the track. Instead, they planned to send crew members onto the barges after it was pushed up on the bank to check. The pilot turned on the search light atop the wheelhouse and pointed it toward the bow to illuminate the barges so three crewmembers could see where they were walking. Before they could check the track clearance, they saw the headlight of the approaching train coming around a slight bend in the tracks about 2,000 feet away.

Both the train conductor and the engineer saw the lights and outline of the towing vessel and barges in the distance but thought it was perpendicular to the shoreline as the train was passing through the slight right turn in the track. They added it was common to see tows and barges in this area. Upon realizing the forward barge overhung the track, the engineer applied the brakes on all the locomotives and freight cars. Upon seeing the sparks from the braking train, the pilot on the Baxter Southern put the engines in reverse to move away from the track and sounded the general alarm to warn the crew, but he was unable to move in time to avoid the collision.

According to the electronic chart symbol reference table, on electronic navigational charts, magenta dashed lines accompanied by an exclamation mark, as indicated on the chart, show the limit of a caution area, and there are no navigational chart symbols for a fleeting area. Right clicking a mouse on the exclamation mark displays a corresponding caution note.

The caution note for that particular area read: “Caution Area: RR [Railroad] Collision and Trackbed Erosion Risk” and “Risk of train collision and embankment erosion due to channel proximity to railroad.” 

Both the captain and pilot said they had training in using the ECS, but they stated they did not see the exclamation point icon by the magenta dashed line because the screen setting was in nighttime mode, making the exclamation point difficult to see.The NTSB determined the probable cause of the collision was the tow’s pilot and captain not correctly identifying the caution area and said mariners should ensure they understand all symbols and applicable advisories in their systems and that owners and operators should ensure their crews are proficient in the use of the electronic charting system.