Illinois blames faulty crossing gates, NTSB blames trucker in truck-train crash

by René Tankersley

Controversy continues to surround a 1999 collision in Bourbonnais, IL, when Amtrak’s City of New Orleans train struck and destroyed the loaded trailer pulled by a semi-tractor driven by trucker John Stokes, killing 11 people. While state and local police investigators have concluded the crossing gates malfunctioned, safety officials in Washington are blaming the trucker.

On Feb. 1, 2002, a crash reconstructionists’ report was released, announcing the police investigation had concluded the crossing gates were not working correctly and had descended on Stokes after he began to cross the tracks. The report said Stokes was “physically impaired by extreme sleep deprivation or fatigue,” but did not try to go around the lowered gates.

Although the state of Illinois and local police investigations believe the crash was not Stokes’ fault, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) announced its own findings on Feb. 5 in Washington, DC. Failing to concur with state and local police, the board said it had determined the probable cause of the collision was Stokes’ “inappropriate response to the crossing warning devices and his judgment, likely impaired by fatigue, that he could cross the tracks before the arrival of the train.”

Additionally, the NTSB cited Stokes’ employer, Melco Transfer Inc., as a contributor to the accident because of the company’s “failure to provide driver oversight sufficient to detect or prevent driver fatigue as a result of excessive driving or on-duty periods.”

Todd Spencer, executive vice president of OOIDA, voiced his concern about the NTSB’s failure to assign some responsibility for the accident to the train’s operator.

“How convenient and easy it is for NTSB to look at conflicting information and say fatigue on the part of the driver without noting that the train was running through an industrial area at 79 miles an hour,” Spencer said. “Seventy-nine miles per hour! As long as trains are going 79 miles an hour there will be horrendous accidents.”

On March 15, 1999, about 9:47 p.m., Amtrak’s City of New Orleans, with 207 passengers and 21 railroad employees on board and operating on the Illinois Central Railroad main line tracks, struck and destroyed the loaded trailer as Stokes’ tractor attempted to cross the tracks at the McKnight Road crossing in Bourbonnais. The accident resulted in 11 deaths and 122 injuries. Both locomotives and 11 of the 14 cars derailed.

Stokes maintains he did not drive around the crossing guards, but instead the warning lights started flashing only after he had already started across the tracks.

Stokes is awaiting trial on charges of driving longer than permitted without sleep in a 24-hour period and not keeping his driver’s log updated. The Illinois Attorney General’s office indicted him in October on one count of willful violation of maximum driving time and one count of willful violation of driver’s record of duty status. Because Illinois classifies logbook and hours-of-service violations as Class 4 felonies, Stokes faces a possible sentence of one to three years in prison for each count.


NTSB’s investigation conclusions

1. The following factors did not cause or contribute to the accident: the physical condition or actions of the engineer of Amtrak train 59; the mechanical condition of the train and the condition of the tracks; railroad operating procedures and policies; the mechanical condition of the truck-tractor semitrailer; the equipment making up Amtrak train 59; weather; alcohol, drugs, or prescription medications; and the location of traffic control signs on the approach to the grade crossing.

2. The accident-involved truck-tractor semitrailer was probably traveling between 7.5 and 14 mph at the time of the collision.

3. The grade crossing signal lights began flashing at least 26 seconds before the train’s arrival at the McKnight Road grade crossing.

4. Based on the signal system tests and physical evidence, including evidence of the truck’s position at the time of impact, both crossing gates likely lowered as designed as the accident truck approached the crossing.

5. The truckdriver had ample time to safely stop his truck and avoid an accident, but likely as a result of fatigue, he failed to respond appropriately to the signals and instead decided to attempt to cross ahead of the train.

6. Melco Transfer Inc. failed to provide driver oversight sufficient to detect or prevent driver fatigue as a result of excessive driving or on-duty periods.

7. The flammability and smoke generation properties of the train’s interior materials did not contribute significantly to the spread of fire.

8. Because of insufficient training in responding to railroad emergencies or inadequate/inappropriate resources, or both, the Bourbonnais Fire Protection District was not prepared to respond effectively to a passenger train accident involving a significant diesel fuel fire.

9. The lack of railroad pavement markings probably had no effect on the truckdriver’s driving behavior.

A synopsis of this accident report is available on the Safety Board’s web site at Paper copies of the report can be purchased from the National Technical Information Service by calling 1-800-533-NTIS.