THOMPSONTOWN, Pa. (WHTM) — On Jan. 14, 1988, Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail) train TV-61 was traveling west from Harrisburg to Chicago along track 2 of the Harrisburg-Pittsburgh main line. Conrail freight train UBT-506 was traveling east from Altoona to Baltimore by way of Harrisburg, traveling along track 1. Each train carried a three-man crew — a conductor, an engineer, and a brakeman.

Due to cold-related problems along track 2, TV-61 was routed over to track 1 at a crossover switch near Newport. The plan was that the train would be switched back onto track 2 at the Thompsontown crossover. Eastbound trains on track 1 were supposed to stop and wait until the crossover was complete.

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But train UBT-506 failed to stop, and the two trains crashed head-on near Thompsontown, Juniata County, with a combined speed of about 70 miles per hour.

Four people died in the crash:

Engineer Melvin Russell Curry (UBT-506)
Brakeman Francis Joseph Madonna (UBT-506)
Engineer Russell Paul Henderson (TV-61)
Brakeman Charles Stephen DeSantis (TV-61)

Conductors Jerry Lynn Haselbarth (UBT-506) and Donald Leroy Hull (TV-61) survived with minor injuries.

In addition to the loss of life, damage to trains and track was estimated at $6,015,000 in 1988 dollars, or about $15,429,853 today.

On Feb. 14, 1989, the National Transportation Safety Board issued its report on the accident. They addressed a lot of shortcomings in the railroad’s operation, including understaffing and lack of backup relief for dispatchers, shortcomings of the computerized tracking control system, problems with the safety backup systems in locomotives, Conrail management and supervision policies, and the unpredictable nature of train operations coupled with irregular scheduling of work shifts. But in the report summary, investigators zeroed in on the primary cause:

“The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was the sleep-deprived condition of the engineer and other crewmembers of train UBT-506, which resulted in their inability to stay awake and alert, and their consequent failure to comply with restrictive signal aspects.”

Further in, the report states, “The Safety Board believes that there is ample evidence to support the conclusion that the crewmembers of UBT-506 did indeed fall asleep some time before their approach to CP Thompson.”

A major factor in this sleep deprivation was the irregular scheduling practices of the railroad. As the report says, “When at home, the engineer and brakeman never could be certain when they would have to return to work…Away from home, the engineer’s reporting times were just as unpredictable.” As a result, the board noted, it’s quite likely the engineer and brakeman on UBT-506 each had less than two hours of sleep in the 24 hours before the crash.

The problem was compounded by the monotony of the trip. The report says “For more than 2 hours after leaving Altoona, the engineer and brakeman of UBT-506 were subjected to the steady drone of the diesel engine in full throttle, as well as the sound and motion of the locomotive rolling over the track with little variation in speed…There was little that the engineer had to do that would help him stay alert and awake.”

The engineer was also effectively immobilized because he had to keep his foot on a “deadman” foot pedal, without which the train would automatically put on the brakes. Lack of sleep, monotony, inability to shift position, and engine drone added up to a deadly combination.

So what’s happened in the 35 years since then? Computerized tracking systems, like a lot of software, have advanced tremendously, with more networking and GPS tracking to avoid collisions. Railroad companies are now acknowledging sleep deprivation as an issue, and some are offering employees programs on how to prevent developing problems. But it’s not a problem that looks like it will go away soon. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, in its online Occupational Outlook Handbook, notes:

“Because trains operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, railroad workers’ schedules may vary to include nights, weekends, and holidays. Most work full time, and some work more than 40 hours per week. Federal regulations require a minimum number of rest hours for train operators.”

And a 2017 Centers for Disease Control survey lists railroad workers as the county’s third-most sleep deprived, with 52.7% of them not getting the recommended amount of sleep. (“Other” transportation workers are in 2nd place with 54%, and communications equipment operators are first with 58.2%.)

To read the NTSB report on the crash, click here.

To read the CDC report, click here.

To read the BLS online workbook entry on railroad work, click here.