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Truck brakes blamed in deadly Amtrak crash

Driver’s reactions also factored in Nev. accident

NTSB chairwoman Deborah Hersman said the accident could have been prevented.


NTSB chairwoman Deborah Hersman said the accident could have been prevented.

RENO — An inattentive trucker with a history of speeding violations who was driving a tractor-trailer with faulty brakes was the probable cause of a collision with an Amtrak train that left six people dead in Nevada last year, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded Tuesday.

On a 5-0 vote, the panel also agreed that the weakness of passenger car walls probably contributed to the number of deaths and more than a dozen injuries after the truck skidded 300 feet into the train at a rural crossing on June 24, 2011. It recommended new strength standards be developed.

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NTSB investigators said the truck driver apparently didn’t notice the train because he was fatigued as a result of inconsistent sleeping patterns, was suffering from ankle pain, or possibly could have been checking messages on his cellphone. But the panel decided there wasn’t enough evidence of any of those things to include in the formal probable cause finding issued during a hearing in Washington.

Board members also ruled out the possibility the crossing guard gate or warning lights malfunctioned after time-lapsed photography showed the gate fully extended four seconds before the crash. Monitoring equipment also indicated the warning lights were flashing and the gate in place 18 seconds before the collision when the truck was still 900 feet away from the crossing.

The truck driver, Larry Valli, 43, was killed along with the train’s conductor and four passengers.

NTSB chairwoman Deborah Hersman said Valli had plenty of opportunity to see and react to the lights.

‘‘This accident could have easily been prevented if the driver had acted appropriately or the motor carrier had acted responsibly in maintaining the vehicle,’’ she said at the close of the nearly three-hour long hearing.

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Representatives of the owner of the truck, John Davis Trucking Co. of Battle Mountain, and their lawyer did not immediately respond to messages from seeking comment.

Investigators said they weren’t able to find any immediate relatives of Valli.

The California Zephyr bound from Chicago to Emmeryville, Calif., was three hours behind schedule when it left Salt Lake City on the day of the crash.

It was going 77 miles per hour in northern Nevada’s Forty Mile Desert and approaching the crossing at US Highway 95 north of Fallon when the engineer noticed that a tractor-trailer hauling two open empty trailers didn’t seem to be slowing for the oncoming train, according to the NTSB’s preliminary findings.

With the whistle blaring, the engineer initiated the emergency brakes about 450 feet from the crossing. Rubber skid marks on the highway show the truck driver hit his brakes 300 feet from the tracks but skidded nearly the length of a football field into the side of the train, investigators said. If the brakes had been properly maintained, the truck should have stopped within about 230 feet of breaking, they said.

Valli, of Winnemucca, had been talking on a cellphone earlier in the day, the NTSB said. He was not talking on the phone at the time of the crash, but he did receive a call a few minutes before that and, while he didn’t answer it, it’s possible he could have subsequently been checking his voice mail, investigators said.

Board member Robert Sumwalt said he found it ‘‘phenomenal’’ that the driver didn’t react to the crossing warning sooner.

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