Dozens of railroad passengers and at least one train crew member suffered injuries ranging from minor bumps and bruises to life-threatening wounds when two trains operated by the Arkansas-Missouri Railroad collided head-on south of West Fork, AR, on October 16, 2014. The riders had been taking a fall foliage tour and gotten stuck on the tracks. The crash occurred when a freight train arriving to help the other train get moving again failed to stop in time. A final count of casualties completed two days later revealed that 44 passengers required hospital treatment and that a conductor had to be flown by helicopter to a major trauma center to have emergency surgery performed on his back.
A preliminary on-scene investigation by National Transportation Safety Board officials showed that the freight train had exceeded the safe speed of 20 mph when approaching the disabled passenger train. Slick railroad track conditions caused by decaying leaves, coupled with an apparent difficulty with maintaining continuous communication between crews and dispatchers, also appear to have contributed to causing the accident.
Having helped railroad employees and passengers injured and killed in rail accidents since the 1980s, I know that many things need to go wrong to set the stage for a head-on, on-track collision between locomotives. I suspect NTSB investigators, Arkansas state officials and others looking into this crash will find many mistakes being made in the hours, minutes and seconds leading up to the collision. Each error and systemic failure must be identified and corrected to prevent similar wrecks in the future.
More importantly, determining whether the crash could have been avoided is essential to holding the Arkansas-Missouri Railroad liable and securing adequate compensation for the injured passengers and workers. I know from my experiences handling rail accident cases in North Carolina, Virginia and elsewhere that ensuring such justice can be difficult and time-consuming. When their health permits, every individual hurt in this crash would do well to seek a free consultation with a personal injury attorney.