NTSB reports of a collision between the Mississippi River

The National Transportation Board said Thursday that the pilot of a Mississippi River tug and his captain pushed his tug against a bank too close to a railroad track, resulting in a collision and train derailment near Galland, Iowa.

Marine Investigation Report 22/22 details the NTSB’s investigation into the Nov. 13, 2021 collision between the tug vessel Baxter Southern and a BNSF coal train transiting the track along the Upper Mississippi coastline. The train hit a barge that was overhanging the tracks. Two locomotives and 10 hopper cars loaded with coal derailed. Six of the derailed hopper cars entered the river. Two members of the train staff were slightly injured. The collision caused $1.9 million in damage to the locomotive and freight cars. The barge suffered minor scratches.

While transiting downriver, strong gusts of wind made the situation unsafe for the Baxter Southern to continue the voyage as planned. Using the ship’s Electronic Chart System (ECS), the captain and pilot identified a location on the shore which they believed represented an ephemeral area that it was safe to push against. Neither the pilot nor the captain clicked on an exclamation mark symbol on the electrical map, which would have shown that the area was at “risk of rail collision and bedrock erosion”.

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 track. Although the barge did not cross any rails, it extended about a foot above the railroad ties.

When the pilot of the Baxter Southern saw the light of the approaching train, he attempted to pull the tug away and tow it from shore. The train engineer activated the train’s emergency brake while the train was approximately 300 feet from the barge. With only seconds to react, the activation of the train’s emergency brake and the attempt to move the trailer 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 point (left, annotated by the NTSB) and the information contained in the corresponding warning note (right). (Source: Southern Towing Company)

The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the collision was that the pilot and master of the tug failed to correctly identify a warning area on the electronic chart before deciding, due to the effect of high winds on the empty barges from the tug, to push the tug against the bank along a railroad.

“The ECS provides a wealth of navigational information to mariners. Electronic Chart Display and Information Systems (ECDIS) allow users to obtain more information about a feature by querying through a cursor,” the report states. “There are many features, including warnings and other navigational information, that can be obtained via cursor choice that 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 proficient in the use of the ECS.

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