On This Date: Thompsontown Train Wreck

THOMPSONTOWN, Pennsylvania (WHTM) – On January 14, 1988 Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail) was traveling TV-61 west from Harrisburg to Chicago along Route 2 of the Harrisburg-Pittsburgh Main Line. The Conrail UBT-506 freight train was traveling east from Altoona to Baltimore by way of Harrisburg, traveling along Track 1. Each train carried a crew of three – a conductor, an engineer and a brakeman.

Because of cold-related issues along Track 2, TV-61 was directed to Track 1 at Cross Key near Newport. The plan was to return the train to Track 2 at the Thompsontown Junction. Eastbound trains were supposed to stop on the first track and wait until the crossing was completed.

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But train UBT-506 failed to stop, and the two trains crashed head-on near Thompsontown, Juniata County, at a combined speed of about 70 miles per hour.

Four people died in the accident:

Engineer Melvin Russell Curry (UBT-506)
Brackmanrancis Joseph Madonna (UBT-506)
Engineer Russell Paul Henderson (TV-61)
Brakeman Charles Stephen DeSantis (TV-61)

Commanders Jerry Lynn Hasselbarth (UBT-506) and Donald Leroy Hull (TV-61) escaped with minor injuries.

In addition to the loss of life, damage to the trains and track was estimated at $6,015,000 in 1988 dollars, about $15,429,853 today.

Onebruary 14, 1989, the National Transportation Safety Board released its crash report. They addressed many of the shortcomings of railroad operation, including understaffing and lack of back-up relief for dispatchers, shortcomings in the computerized tracking control system, problems with back-up safety systems in locomotives, Conrail’s management and supervision policies, and the unpredictable nature of train operations combined with unscheduled scheduling. Regular work shifts. But in the summary of the report, the investigators focused on the main cause:

“The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was sleep deprivation of the engineer and other crew members of the UBT-506 train, resulting in their inability to remain awake and alert, and thus their failure to comply with the restrictive signal aspects.”

Further, the report states, “The Safety Board believes there is sufficient evidence to support the conclusion that the crew members of UBT-506 did indeed fall asleep some time prior to their approach to CP Thompson.”

A major factor in this sleep deprivation was the railroad’s erratic scheduling practices. As the report says, “When the engineer and brakeman are at home, they can never be sure when they will return to work… Away from home, the times of the engineer’s reports were unpredictable.” As a result, the board noted that it was very likely that the engineer and brakeman on UBT-506 slept less than two hours in the 24 hours before the crash.

The problem was exacerbated by the monotony of the trip. The report says “For more than two hours after leaving Altoona, the engineer and brakeman on UBT-506 were subjected to the constant drone of the diesel engine at full throttle, as well as the sound and motion of the locomotive rolling down the track with little speed variation… There was little to be desired.” An engineer has to do to help him stay alert and awake.”

The engineer was also effectively immobilized because he had to keep his foot on the “deadman” foot pedal, without which the train would automatically apply the brakes. Lack of sleep, monotony, inability to change position, and engine drone added to the killer combination.

So what has happened in the 35 years since? Computerized tracking systems, like a lot of software, have evolved exponentially, with more networks and GPS tracking to avoid collisions. Railroad companies now recognize sleep deprivation as an issue, and some offer programs to employees on how to prevent problems from developing. But it’s not a problem that seems to be going away soon. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, in its online Occupational Outlook Handbook, notes:

Because trains operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, railroad workers’ schedules may vary to include nights, weekends, and holidays. Most work full time, and some work more than 40 hours a week.ederal regulations require a minimum number of Rest hours for train operators.

A 2017 CDC survey states that railroad workers are the third most sleep-deprived county, with 52.7% of them not getting the recommended amount of sleep. (“Other” transport workers are second with 54% and telecom equipment operators first with 58.2%).

To read the NTSB’s report on the incident, click here.

To read the CDC report, click here.

To read the entry for the BLS online workbook on railway work, click here.