NTSB: ‘Incorrectly Labeled’ Warning Zone Led to BNSF Derailment


Written by

Carolina Worrell, Editor-in-Chief

​Aerial photo of the derailment of the two locomotives and eight hopper cars. Two additional hopper cars are submerged in the river. (Source: BNSF)​

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recently stated in a report that the probable cause of a November 2021 collision between the tug vessel Baxter Southern and a BNSF coal train was that the pilot and master of the tug “identified incorrectly” a warning area on the electronic vessel chart. (ECS) before pushing the trailer against a bank too close to a railroad track, resulting in a train derailment near Galland, Iowa.

The Marine Investigation Report 22/22 (downloadable below), which was released on August 25, details the NTSBThe Nov. 13, 2021, investigation into the collision between the Mississippi River tug and a BNSF coal train transiting the railroad along the shoreline of the upper Mississippi River.

Area where tug Baxter Southern and BNSF freight train collided as shown
by a red X. (Background source: Google Maps)

According to the report, the train struck a barge that was overhanging the tracks resulting in the derailment of two locomotives and 10 hopper cars loaded with coal. According to the investigation, six of the derailed hopper cars entered the river and two train personnel were slightly injured. The collision, according to the NTSB, resulted in $1.9 million in damage to the locomotive and freight cars, while the barge suffered minor scratches.

The Baxter Southern after the crash. (Source: US Coast Guard)

According to the report, while transiting downstream, strong gusts of wind made it unsafe for the Baxter Southern to continue the journey as planned. Using the ship’s ECS, the captain and pilot, according to the NTSB, “identified a location on the shore that they believed represented an ephemeral area that it was safe to push against.” Neither the pilot nor the captain, the NTSB adds, clicked on an exclamation mark symbol on the electrical map, which would have shown that the area was at “risk of rail collision and erosion of the platform”.

According to the NTSB, the pilot pushed the trailer onto the bank and three crew members rode forward on the trailer to check that the forward-most barge was clear of the way. Although the barge did not cross any rails, it extended about a foot above the railroad ties.

According to the report, when the Baxter Southern pilot saw the light of the approaching train, he attempted to pull the tug away and tow it from shore. The BNSF train engineer activated the train’s emergency brake while the train was approximately 300 feet from the barge but with only seconds to respond, activating the train’s emergency brake and attempting to move the towing occurred too late to avoid the collision.

Baxter Southern Rose Point in nighttime display showing the area marked by the magenta dotted line and exclamation mark (left, annotated by NTSB) and the information contained in the corresponding warning note (right). (Source: Southern Towing Company)

“ECS provides a wealth of navigational information to mariners,” the report said. “Electronic Chart Display and Information Systems (ECDIS) allow users to get more information about a feature by querying with a cursor. There are many features, including warnings and other navigational information, that can be accessed using a cursor and are not specifically noted in the default map display. Mariners should ensure that they understand all applicable symbols and notices identified in their ECS, and owners and operators should ensure that their crews are familiar with the use of the ECS.

For more information on chart symbols, mariners should consult US Chart No. 1: Symbols, Abbreviations and Terms Used on Paper and Electronic Navigational Charts or the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Electronic inland navigation charts.



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