NTSB issues final report on 2020 Watco employee death

Written by David C. Lester, Editor-in-Chief

The National Transportation Safety Board has issued its final report on the 2020 death of an employee of the Decatur & Eastern Illinois Railroad, a Watco railroad.

According to the report, the employee was trying to open a gate to an industrial facility while riding on a moving rail car being switched. While his hand was on the gate, the moving train pulled him away from the gate and on to the track, then he was struck by the train. Here is the report’s summary of the accident, along with footnotes contained in this section of the report.

“1.1 Accident Summary

On November 11, 2020, about 9:43 a.m. local time, a Decatur & Eastern Illinois Railroad (DREI) conductor of train DREI 200-11 was killed while picking up railcars in the industrial facility of Cabot Corporation (Cabot) in Tuscola, Illinois.1 The Cabot industrial facility rail entrance was equipped with two gates next to the track that are required to be open for entry. As train DREI 200-11 approached the entrance, the conductor, who was riding the lead railcar in the direction of movement, encountered a gate that was fouling the track.2 The conductor positioned himself on the end ladder of the railcar and attempted to open the gate to clear the track without stopping and dismounting. Surveillance video showed the conductor grabbed the end of the gate with his hand and was pulled off the ladder onto the track, where he was struck by the train.3 (See figure 1.) The weather at the time was dry, daylight, 34°F and partly cloudy.


1 (a) All times in this report are local time unless otherwise indicated. (b) Visit ntsb.gov to find additional information in the public docket for this NTSB investigation (case number RRD21FR004). Use the CAROL Query to search safety recommendations and investigations. (c) DREI is an American regional railroad that is a subsidiary of WATCO and operates in eastern Illinois and western Indiana.

2 Fouling the track is the placement of an object or an individual in such a position that the object or individual could be struck by a passing train.3 No parties were established; however, the DREI and the Federal Railroad Administration participated with the NTSB in the investigation

Figure 1. Location of conductor and train DREI 200-11 (National Transportation Safety Board)

“Train DREI 200-11’s crew consisted of an engineer, a conductor and a conductor trainee. The crew started work in the Tuscola yard about 6:25 a.m., switching, pulling and spotting railcars for several local customers.4 About 8:35 a.m., the crew picked up seven railcars to deliver to the Union Pacific Railroad interchange track and departed the yard.5 The crew arrived at the interchange to deliver the railcars about 9:10 a.m. The crew then departed the interchange about 9:25 a.m. to pick up three railcars and return to the Cabot industrial facility.

“The DREI trainmaster called the crew’s company cell phone twice between 9:25 a.m. and 9:35 a.m. to instruct them to assist another crew after their work at Cabot was complete. The conductor trainee answered both phone calls and briefed the rest of the crew on the changes in work assignment. During interviews, the engineer told National Transportation Safety Board investigators that the crew expected that their return to Cabot at 9:25 a.m. would be the last assignment of the day. The engineer also told investigators that the conductor said assisting the other crew would add 4 or 5 hours of work. The engineer and conductor trainee stated the conductor then became visibly angry and increased his pace of work when told of the change in work assignment. During the interviews with investigators, witnesses shared that the conductor had a history of becoming angry when plans changed.


4 (a) A switch is a track structure with movable rails to divert rolling stock from one track to another. (b) Spotting is the act of placing a railcar in a specific location on a track.

5 Interchange is a track or yard where two or more railroads meet and exchange rolling stock.

“With the new assignment, the crew picked up three railcars and began to shove those railcars towards Cabot with the conductor trainee controlling the movement (via radio communication with the engineer) from the south side of the lead railcar and the conductor riding the north side of the lead railcar.6 The crew stopped at the Cabot track switch that controlled train movement into the Cabot industrial facility, and the conductor trainee dismounted the railcar to line the switch into the facility. The conductor remained on the north side ladder of the lead railcar and assumed control over the train movement, giving instructions to the engineer to shove into Cabot. As the crew began to shove the railcars into the Cabot industrial facility, the conductor trainee mounted the south side of the lead railcar. During interviews, the engineer and conductor trainee told investigators that there was not a job briefing when the conductor took control over the movement.

“Investigators were able to obtain and review surveillance video of the Cabot facility and observed the actions of the conductor. About 9:42 a.m., as the crew was shoving into the Cabot industrial facility, the conductor positioned himself on the end ladder of the lead railcar in the direction of movement and attempted to open the entrance gate fouling the track. (See figure 2.) As the conductor’s hand made contact with the gate, he was pulled from the railcar onto the track where he was struck by the moving train.

Figure 2. Gate fouling the track at the Cabot industrial facility.


6 A shoving movement is the process of pushing railcars or a train from the rear.

“The conductor trainee radioed the engineer to stop the movement and dismounted the equipment. The engineer walked back and phoned the DREI general manager upon finding the unresponsive conductor. The engineer then called 911, and the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department; Tuscola police, fire, emergency medical technician; and Douglas County coroner were notified and arrived on scene about 10:00 a.m.”

For complete details of the accident investigation and determination of probable cause, please refer to the copy of the complete report, which can be found here.

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