Railroad Accident Report

Derailment of Union Pacific Railroad Unit
Freight Tran 6205 West Near Kelso, California
January 12, 1997

NTSB Number RAR-98/01
NTIS Number PB98-916301
PDF Document (533K)


Synopsis: On January 12, 1997, about 11:52 a.m. Pacific standard time, the Union Pacific Railroad unit freight train 6205 west derailed 68 cars on the Union Pacific Railroad Los Angeles Subdivision, milepost 238.7, near Kelso, California. The train consisted of 3 locomotive units and 75 loaded covered hopper cars. While descending Cima Hill, the engineer inadvertently activated the multiple-unit engine shutdown switch, which shut down all the locomotive unit diesel engines and eliminated the train's dynamic braking capability. The train rapidly accelerated beyond the 20-mph authorized speed limit despite the engineer's efforts to increase the train's air braking, which the engineer placed in emergency 1 minute and 13 seconds after dynamic braking loss. The train's consist weight was listed at an average of 13 tons per car less than the train actually weighed. The train eventually reached a speed of 72 mph and derailed 68 of its 75 cars while exiting a siding near Kelso, California. No fatalities, injuries, fires, or hazardous materials releases resulted from the accident. The total damage cost was $4,079,152.

The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of the derailment was (1) a prolonged pattern of inattention and lack of action by Union Pacific Railroad management to protect effectively or relocate the multiple-unit engine shutdown switch in SD60M locomotives after the switch had repeatedly been recognized as subject to inadvertent activation; and (2) failure of Union Pacific Railroad management to adequately address critical safety issues such as dynamic braking system operational reliance and protection, and authorized maximum train speeds in the event of dynamic braking failure. Contributing to the severity of the accident was the failure of Union Pacific Railroad management to ensure accurate car weight assessment and training for operating personnel on retainer-setting procedures and effects.

The major safety issues discussed in this report are the placement of safety-critical locomotive cab controls, adequate train-speed safety margins for steep-grade railroads, and the criticality of dynamic braking systems. The report also discusses accurate car weight reporting, the power brake rulemaking process, and the use of air brake retainers.

As a result of this accident investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board makes recommendations to the Federal Railroad Administration, the Association of American Railroads, and the Union Pacific Railroad.