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Speeches

Opening Statement - Collision Between Freight Train and Motorcoach, Biloxi, MS
Robert L. Sumwalt
Washington, DC
8/7/2018

Good morning and welcome to the Boardroom of the National Transportation Safety Board.

I am Robert Sumwalt, and I’m honored to serve as the Chairman of the NTSB. Joining us today are my colleagues on the Board, Member Earl Weener and Member Bella Dinh-Zarr.

Today, we meet in open session, as required by the Government in the Sunshine Act, to consider the collision between a freight train and a charter motorcoach at a high-profile highway-railroad grade crossing in Biloxi, Mississippi, on March 7, 2017.

The crash resulted in the deaths of 4 motorcoach passengers, and injuries to the driver and 37 other passengers.

On behalf of my colleagues on the Board and the entire NTSB staff, our sincerest condolences to those of you who lost loved ones in this accident. Please understand that the sole purpose of this investigation has been to learn from what happened, to prevent crashes like this one from happening again. To those who were injured, many seriously, we hope that you are on the way to the fullest possible recovery.

This morning, investigators will detail the full crash sequence. But very simply, the charter bus bottomed-out and became grounded on a high-profile highway-rail grade crossing. The long wheelbase of the bus made a grounding more likely than for a passenger car. While the bus was grounded, a train approached and struck it.

A crossbuck sign, warning lights, and crossing gate arms were present to prevent drivers from crossing the tracks when a train was approaching. But at the time that the bus became stuck, the lights were not yet active, and the gate arms were still up.

There was also a “low ground clearance” sign posted, featuring a silhouette of a lowboy trailer. But in this instance, the sign was not enough to warn the motorcoach driver that his vehicle, too, might become grounded.

Today, we’ll discuss not only this collision and collisions like it, but also groundings that don’t result in collisions—since a grounding set the scene for this crash. We’ll also discuss whether today’s signage effectively and consistently protects against the risk of grounding, and if not, what more can be done.

And finally, we’ll discuss the many entities that play a part in making such crossings safer.

The State of Mississippi, the City of Biloxi, the railroad, the Federal Railroad Administration, and the Federal Highway Administration, and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials all affect the state of grade crossing safety in the city of Biloxi.

When that many entities work together to improve safety, one body can bring perspectives to the table that another body might miss. But there’s a downside too: Every entity might think that a specific hazard is somebody else’s responsibility.

We’ll look at how these entities worked together, and how they can work together in the future.

You’ll hear a lot of numbers today: the angle of incline and decline south and north of the railroad tracks, in inches and degrees. The seconds between events. The speed of the train. They’re all important.

Perhaps the most important number you’ll hear today is 4, the number of people who lost their lives in this collision.

Another important number is 29. There are 29 grade crossings in Biloxi. There are also that many grade crossings in Biloxi with a vertical slope greater than the maximum recommended for new and reconstructed grade crossings.

Which high-profile crossings should be off-limits to vehicles prone to grounding? Which vehicles are most at risk? How should conditions be communicated to drivers? These are some of the questions raised by this investigation.

Today, the NTSB staff will briefly present the most pertinent facts and analysis found in the draft report. Our public docket, available at www.ntsb.gov, contains more than 8,000 pages of additional information, including interviews, videos, as well as 119 photos.

Staff have pursued all avenues in order to propose findings, a probable cause, and recommendations to the Board. We on the Board will then question staff to ensure that the report, as adopted, truly provides the best opportunity to enhance safety.

Now Managing Director Dennis Jones, if you would kindly introduce the staff.