KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The National Transportation Safety Board issued its final report Wednesday regarding the deadly June 2022 Amtrak train derailment in Mendon, Missouri.
Three train passengers died June 27, 2022, when the Chicago-bound Southwest Chief train crashed into a dump truck at a rural railroad crossing, obliterating the truck and derailing several train cars. The truck driver also died in the crash, which left dozens more passengers injured as well.
The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the collision was the dump truck driver "proceeding for unknown reasons into the highway-railroad grade crossing without stopping despite the presence of a stop sign and approaching train."
The report also noted that the crossing's design, including a steep grade and poor alignment to the train tracks, contributed to the derailment.
The design "reduced the drivers' ability to see approaching trains and made stopping as required by Missouri law difficult for heavy trucks," according to the NTSB report.
The NTSB noted that the grade at the intersection was 13 times more steep than the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, or AASHTO, recommends with a drop of 39 inches over 30 feet from the crossing. The AASHTO recommends no more than a 3-inch drop over than span.
The 45-degree angle of approach from the road, which is 30 degrees more than the lowest recommended by the AASHTO, also made it more difficult for approaching drivers to see an oncoming train.
Ideally, roads would cross train tracks at a 90-degree angle, according to the AASHTO, but 75 degrees is the smallest angle recommended to prevent drivers from having to crane their neck back to far to see down the tracks.
The NTSB report also took note of the crossing's road conditions, specifically "potholes and humps on the gravel road surface on the approach."
According to the NTSB report, the dump-truck driver ignored a stop sign at the tracks, but a coworker who drove a similar dump truck and witnessed the crash said they seldom stopped at the crossing “because the steep grade made starting again difficult.”
He said the driver involved in the crash was operating the dump truck at a normal speed for the crossing.
“The collision truck driver’s movement through the crossing was therefore consistent with how the witness driver would proceed with no train present,” the NTSB report found. “This suggests that the driver involved in the collision did not see the train as he approached and entered the crossing.”
The nearest level grade approaching the crossing was more than 150 feet from the tracks and the NTSB report noted that vegetation may have obscured part of the track from the distance, though it's unclear if the truck driver involved in the crash attempted to look for an oncoming train.
As the Amtrak train approached the crossing, the train engineer saw the dump truck approaching from the south on County Road 113 and repeatedly sounded the horn above and beyond federal requirements.
But with the train traveling 89 mph and the truck traveling “about 5-6 mph as it reached and traversed the crossing without stopping,” the engineer was unable to stop in time to avoid the collision.
While the NTSB did not issue any new safety recommendations, the board referenced recommendations made in its report issued last month regarding another deadly passenger-train derailment that happened in September 2021 near Joplin, Montana.
That report included new recommendations to the Federal Railroad Administration, or FRA, regarding "occupant protection in passenger cars," which the NTSB reiterated in its Mendon report. The recommendations are:
- to develop a performance standard to ensure that passenger-car windows remain in the window structure during a collision;
- to perform additional research on passenger injuries from derailments and overturns to evaluate methods for avoiding common injuries, potentially including seatbelts and “securing potential projectiles”;
- to develop research-based “occupant protection standards” to mitigate future injuries.
Two of the people who died aboard the train were in the lounge car vestibule, according to the NTSB report.
Both succumbed to "compression asphyxia," which is caused by being crushed from an external weight or force, after a window broke and collapsed inside the passenger car during the collision.
That damage allowed a 1-to-4-foot pile of "roadway ballast and soil" to accumulate inside the passenger car before it came to rest and may have buried passengers.
The death of a third passenger, who was flown to a hospital from the scene, was attributed to blunt force trauma. Investigators said it was unclear exactly where the person was located in the train at the time of the crash.
The NTSB report ruled out texting or making a phone call by the train engineer and truck driver as a contributing factor in the crash.
The Porche Prairie Crossing, which is located in Chariton County, Missouri, has remained closed since the deadly crash.
State and county officials have targeted other passive crossings, where there are no safety measures beyond crossbucks and stop signs, for closing as well.
"In collaboration with the City of Chillicothe and the Missouri Department of Transportation, Chariton County has developed a plan to close several other passive crossings and redesign local roads to direct traffic through active crossings," the NTSB report said.
The Missouri legislature allocated $50 million from the General Fund in the Fiscal Year 2023-24 budget for improvements at rail crossings like the one near Mendon throughout the state.