The Dec. 9, 2021 collision of a freight train with a passenger trolley was due to the trolley operator’s failure to stop at a crossing in time. However, cell phone use may have contributed to the incident.
National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators found evidence that the trolley operator used his personal cell phone minutes before the incident occurred, possibly causing him to be distracted.
Trolley operator failed to notice warning lights
The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) passenger trolley was approaching a railroad crossing in Darby, Pennsylvania at about 8:25 a.m. on Dec. 9, 2021.
As the trolley closed in, the crossing’s automated warning light system activated based on the approach of an incoming CSX freight train. The trolley operator didn’t notice the warning lights in time and activated the emergency brakes in an attempt to avoid entering the crossing.
Unfortunately, the trolley operator didn’t react quickly enough and the trolley came to a stop with its front end on the railroad tracks. The crossing’s gate arm swung down onto the top of the trolley, making it impossible for the passenger vehicle to move.
The incoming freight train struck the trolley at 22 mph, causing five of the 10 passengers on the trolley to sustain non-life-threatening injuries. The trolley operator and the CSX train engineer also received minor injuries. SEPTA estimated $125,000 in damages to the trolley. CSX found the freight train sustained $5,500 in damages.
Cell phone used 3 minutes before crash
SEPTA trolley operators are required to come to a full stop between 15 to 50 feet from the nearest rail when approaching an unfenced railroad crossing like the one involved in this incident.
NTSB investigators ruled out fatigue, substance abuse, weather conditions and mechanical failures as contributing causes for the trolley operator’s failure to stop within this distance. They noted that it was the trolley operator’s failure to stop that caused the incident.
Investigators also noted that data from the onboard surveillance video image recorder revealed that the trolley operator used his personal cell phone while operating the trolley about three minutes before the incident occurred. Cell phone use while operating a trolley is a violation of SEPTA safety rules, which require all employee personal electronic devices to be turned off and stored out of sight.
While the NTSB couldn’t fully blame the incident on personal cell phone use, it couldn’t “exclude the possibility that the operator was distracted while operating the trolley” because he had used his phone.
SEPTA has since issued a training bulletin to all transit operating personnel emphasizing its rules against personal cell phone use while operating vehicles.