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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

After Horrific Crash, Train Crew Safety Gets Lawmakers' Attention

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network
Dwight and Susie Hauck pose outside their home in Auburn, Washington. Dwight was the lone survivor in a crew shuttle that was hit by a fast-moving freight train at a rail yard in 2011.

Four years ago, a train crash in southwest Washington killed two railroad workers and their driver.

That crash highlighted a danger of the job: the time rail crews spend not on board a train, but in vehicles being shuttled around. There’s a proposal in the Washington legislature to toughen regulations on companies that haul rail crews from one assignment to the next.

But time is running out.

A fatal crash

It was March 23, 2011 at a rail yard in Kelso, Washington. A video camera captured a Chevy Suburban carrying three railroad crew members. Another camera showed the view from on board a Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight train traveling nearly 50 miles per hour.

The Suburban turned to cross three sets of railroad tracks. Some stationary box cars on the middle set of tracks blocked the driver’s view of the oncoming train. The Suburban pulled out just as the train approaches the crossing. And then a fatal crash.

“I don’t remember anything at all,” said Dwight Hauck, the lone survivor in the Suburban.

Hauck's wife, Susie, got the news when a railroad representative showed up at her door.

“I said ‘is Dwight OK?’ And that’s when I started to cry and got really upset because I had a feeling something happened,” she said.

Hauck's injuries were extensive: a traumatic brain injury, crushed ribs and a broken ankle. He would spend several weeks in the hospital and several more after that in rehabilitation.

Hauck cries as he recalls being told of the fate of his two fellow crew members and their driver.

“Nobody survived,” he said. “I worked with the engineer for 20 some years and found out he didn’t survive.”

Outsourced transport

The Suburban Hauck had been riding in was owned by a company that had a contract with the railroad to transport its crews. In the old days, railroad employees drove these shuttles. And they were regulated by Washington’s Utilities and Transportation Commission.

But now, most of the shuttle work is outsourced. Veteran railroaders say as a result the quality of the drivers and the safety of the vehicles has suffered.

“I will tell you myself and a lot of other railroad employees in the state if you ask them they would tell you that the most dangerous thing they often do in the course of their work is get in one of those vehicles and be driven somewhere,” said Herb Krohn, a train conductor who lobbies the Washington legislature on behalf of his union.

Krohn tracks train crew accidents on a spreadsheet with descriptions like:

  • Crew van driving in ice lost control -- van rolled
  • Driver lost control, van went into ditch
  • Crew van struck by tractor trailer

Unlike at Kelso, most of these accidents don’t involve a train. Washington’s Utilities and Transportation Commission identified more than 30 such accidents in 2012 and 2013. For the past three years, the railroad union has been pushing Washington lawmakers to enact new regulations for vehicles that haul railroad crews.
“This is about safety, this is about people’s lives,” Krohn said. “It’s about people being able to go home to their family at the end of the day.”

Lester Sokolowski is a vice president of safety at Professional Transportation Incorporated - the largest crew hauler in the country. He told a panel of lawmakers in February that his company opposes a measure to further regulate third-party rail crew transporters.

“At PTI our number one priority is safety, safety for all,” Sokolowski said. “PTI is opposed to this proposed legislation because we believe that the current state requirements in place are adequate.”

Sokolowski took specific exception to a proposed insurance mandate. It would require crew transport companies to carry multi-million dollar uninsured motorists coverage.

“This bill would put an onerous and significantly costly burden on PTI and its customers,” he said.

'It’s going to happen in the vehicle'

After the deadly Kelso crash in 2011, a federal investigation highlighted the driver’s failure to stop and the lack of visibility as factors in the accident. Since then, flashing lights and gates have been installed at that crossing. The shuttle company was fined by the state of Washington and eventually went out of business.

Dwight Hauck sued the company and the railroad and reached a confidential settlement. Today Hauck is permanently disabled with a brain injury.

For his wife Susie there’s a mix of emotions.

“Thankful everyday he’s with us, but it’s sad because he’s a different person,” she said.

Hauck said he always assumed if he ever got hurt on the job it wouldn’t be because of an accident on board a train.

“I always figured it’s going to happen in the vehicle, getting transported,” he said. “Ended up sure enough that’s what ended my career.”

The measure to regulate train crew shuttles passed the Washington House, but its fate in the state Senate is far from certain. Supporters and opponents say it’s caught up in the politics of some other railroad-related legislation -- politics that may doom it for a third year in a row.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."