Big Bayou Canot rail accident
The wreck of the Sunset Limited at Big Bayou Canot
|Date||September 22, 1993, 25 years ago|
|Rail line||CSX Transportation|
|Type of incident||Derailment|
|Cause||Barge collision with bridge / wrong design|
The Big Bayou Canot rail accident was the derailing of an Amtrak train on the CSXT Big Bayou Canot bridge in southwestern Alabama, United States, on September 22, 1993. It was caused by displacement of a span and deformation of the rails when a tow of heavy barges had collided with the bridge eight minutes earlier. Forty-seven were killed and 103 were injured. To date, it is both the deadliest train wreck in Amtrak's history and the worst rail disaster in the United States since the 1958 Newark Bay, New Jersey rail accident in which 48 lives were lost.
CSX Transportation's unfinished swing bridge over the Big Bayou Canot in southwestern Alabama (about 10 miles northeast of Mobile) was struck at approximately 2:45 a.m. by a barge being pushed by the towboat Mauvilla (owned and operated by Warrior and Gulf Navigation of Chickasaw, Alabama), whose pilot had become disoriented in heavy fog. The collision forced the unsecured end of a bridge span approximately three feet out of alignment, into the path of an oncoming train, and severely kinked the track.
At 2:53 a.m., Amtrak's Sunset Limited train, powered by three locomotives (one GE Genesis P40DC number 819 in the front, and two EMD F40PHs, numbers 262 and 312) en route from Los Angeles, California to Miami, Florida with 220 passengers and crew aboard, crossed the bridge at around 70 miles per hour (110 km/h) and derailed at the kink. The first of its three locomotives slammed into the displaced span, causing that part of the bridge to collapse into the water beneath. The lead locomotive embedded itself nose-first into the canal bank, and the other two locomotives, together with the baggage car, dormitory car and two of the six passenger cars, plunged into the water. The locomotives' fuel tanks, each of which held several thousand gallons of diesel fuel, ruptured upon impact, resulting in a massive fuel spill and a fire. Forty-seven people, 42 of whom were passengers, were killed, many by drowning, others by fire/smoke inhalation. Another 103 were injured. The towboat's four crew members were not injured. At the time of the derailment, the lead locomotive, number 819, had been in service with Amtrak for only twenty days.
Immediately prior to the accident, the Mauvilla had made a wrong turn and entered an un-navigable channel of water heading to the bridge. The towboat's pilot, Willie Odom, was not properly trained on how to read his radar and thus, owing to the very poor visibility in the fog and his lack of experience, did not realize that he was off course. The boat also lacked a compass and a chart of the waters. Odom believed that he was still on the Mobile River and had identified the bridge in the radar as another tug boat. He was not found to be criminally liable for the accident.
The bridge span had actually been designed to rotate so it could be converted to a swing bridge by adding suitable equipment. No such conversion had ever been performed, but the span had not been adequately secured against unintended movement. Despite the displacement of the bridge, the continuously welded rails did not break. As a result, the track circuit controlling the bridge approach block signals remained closed (intact) and the nearest signal continued to display a clear (green) aspect. Had one of the rails been severed by the bridge's displacement, the track circuit would have opened, causing the approach signal to display a stop (red) aspect and the preceding signal an amber (caution) approach indication. This might have given the Amtrak engineer sufficient time to stop his train or at least reduce speed in an effort to minimize the severity of the accident.
An episode of the National Geographic Channel documentary series Seconds From Disaster examined the accident. In addition to corroborating findings of the official accident report, the program revealed that the train had been delayed in New Orleans by repairs to an air conditioner unit and a toilet. This had put the train a half-hour behind schedule. If not for this delay, the Sunset Limited would have passed over the Big Bayou Canot bridge 20 minutes before the bridge was hit by the barge.
As a result of its investigation of this accident, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) made a comprehensive series of recommendations, on September 19, 1994, to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Coast Guard, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak), the Federal Emergency Management Agency, The American Waterways Operators, Inc., the Warrior & Gulf Navigation Company, the Association of American Railroads, and the American Short Line Railroad Association.
Following a recommendation to maintain a record of onboard passenger numbers, Amtrak now records passenger lists electronically.
The accident, and the damage to the bridge, left Amtrak unable to offer service between New Orleans and Florida. The Sunset Limited operated from Los Angeles to New Orleans as before, and service east of New Orleans was listed as "temporarily suspended". However, service was not restored when the track was repaired, although Amtrak route maps showed a route between New Orleans and Jacksonville for years afterwards. The route was revived, but then dropped again after Hurricane Katrina. As of 2018[update], Amtrak continues to describe the route between New Orleans and Orlando as "suspended."
- "Derailment of Amtrak Train NO. 2 on the CSXT Big Bayou Canot Bridge Accident Report". National Transportation Safety Board. September 19, 1994. Retrieved February 6, 2018.
- Wreck of the Sunset Limited episode of 'Seconds from Disaster', at IMDb, 10 August 2004
- Wreck of the Sunset Limited. National Geographic. Retrieved September 2, 2015 – via YouTube.
- "Not Just Another P40 – Amtrak 819". The Meridian Speedway. Retrieved December 18, 2017.
- Labaton, Stephen (June 22, 1994). "Barge Pilot Blamed in Fatal Amtrak Wreck". The New York Times. Retrieved July 17, 2014.
- "No Criminal Liability Is Found in Amtrak Bayou Derailment". Los Angeles Times. March 26, 1994. Retrieved July 17, 2014.
- "Amtrak System Timetable; Updated June 2018" (PDF). June 2018. p. 87. Archived (PDF) from the original on September 22, 2018. Retrieved April 25, 2018.
- Holloway, David Mobile Press-Register 200th Anniversary: Sunset Limited train wreck memories not diminished by passing years at al.com, 1 July 2013. Retrieved 3 June 2014
- Sproul, R. C. Train Wreck Eyewitness account of aftermath, at Ligonier Ministries blog. Retrieved 3 June 2014
- Summary and photos at Trainweb.org. Retrieved 3 June 2014
- Graphical re-enactment of accident cause at TMBA Inc Animation Studio, New York. Retrieved 3 June 2014
- U.S. Coast Guard: The short film Aerial and Boat Views of Amtrak Train Derailment, Mobile, Alabama (1993) is available for free download at the Internet Archive