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NTSB blames fatal Bettendorf train crash on open switch

In its continuing investigation of a freight train accident in July in Iowa, killing two, the NTSB has developed the following factual information:

At approximately 2:08 a.m. CDT on Tuesday, July 14, 2009, a southbound Dakota, Minnesota and Eastern Railroad (DME) train consisting of two locomotives and 83 freight cars collided with railcars that had been placed on a track on the west side of the Bettendorf rail yard (located in the city of Bettendorf, Iowa) by a BNSF train crew. Both of the crewmembers on the DME train, an engineer and a conductor, were fatally injured in the collision. None of the BNSF crewmembers were injured in the accident.

The northbound BNSF freight train from Barstow, Ill., had arrived at the Bettendorf Yard about 12:15 a.m. to deliver 55 freight cars. After placing 18 freight cars on track 2 and 19 freight cars on track 3 in the west side of Bettendorf Yard, the BNSF train crew pulled back onto the main track and moved their locomotives and 18 remaining freight cars into a siding on the east side of the main track. The BNSF train crew left both the switch from the main track to the west side of the yard, and the switch to the siding track on the east side of the yard, in the open position (aligned away from the main track).

The BNSF train crew then released its track authority to the DME train dispatcher by radio. Following that, the dispatcher gave the authority (by radio) to the DME train to use the main track to travel from Bettendorf to Nahant, Iowa.

The southbound DME train, which had been stopped outside the Bettendorf Yard, then moved forward on the main track at the track speed limit of 25 mph. The switch from the main track to the east siding was realigned by remote signal activation by the DME train crew in order for the DME train to pass through on the main track. The switch from the main track to the west Bettendorf Yard was a manual switch only, however, and it remained open to the west side yard tracks.

The open switch from the main track into the west side yard diverted the southbound DME train to where it struck the rail cars that were on track 3 in Bettendorf Yard.

The parties to the investigation, which is ongoing, are the Federal Railroad Administration, BNSF, DME, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and the United Transportation Union.

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