Train Wreck

Union Pacific railroad engineer Michael Coleman has bad luck and worse timing.

Last month, a Phoenix jury slammed the railroad with a multimillion-dollar verdict for a fatal accident in which Coleman, who has only one eye, failed to see a 30-ton asphalt roller on the crossing ahead of him. The train ran into the roller, killing its driver, Charles Conway.

Part of the jury's fiscal pique was based on the fact that Union Pacific not only hired a one-eyed man to drive a locomotive, but that even after the accident Coleman was still allowed at the controls of a train that often moves through the congested streets of downtown Phoenix.

Now, he's done it again. Two weeks ago, Coleman hit someone else -- and in almost the same spot on the tracks.

"This is exactly what the jury was afraid would happen with him operating the train," says Thomas Slack, the attorney who won $6.8 million on behalf of Conway's family.

And while the circumstances are markedly different, it's still pretty strange that this particular proverbial lightning would strike twice -- and so soon after the verdict.

The first accident happened in broad daylight near 24th Street and Jefferson. Conway was part of a construction crew working to upgrade the crossing and install crossing gates, among other things.

No flaggers were on duty as regulations required, and Coleman, who was a trainee engineer at the time of the accident, was pushing the 3,000-ton train along at nearly 30 miles an hour even though the construction area was known as the most dangerous crossing in Phoenix and he was only about a mile from his destination, the Union Pacific freight yard.

On November 13, Coleman, who lacks peripheral vision and has no depth perception, was at the throttle as the milelong string of freight cars moved through the same area on its way to the yard. This time, though, the train was traveling at night, just before 9 p.m., in the area of 24th Street and Air Lane, just a few blocks from the site of the previous accident.

But the train was moving more slowly, about 10 miles per hour, according to a Phoenix police report. Thom Slack likes to think the slower speed is the result of his jury's anger -- testimony at trial revealed the train would have lost only about a minute if it were going at the safer speed of 10 mph. Railroad officials won't comment, but train crews may have reduced their speeds in light of the multimillion-dollar verdict.

Coleman and other members of the engine crew told police they saw what appeared to be a bag of garbage on the south side of the track. The "bag" was partially covering the track, said Coleman, who told police he was sitting on the right front side of the engine compartment.

When the train was about 100 feet away, the engine crew realized the bag was a body. As the conductor put it, they realized the object had two legs. Coleman threw the train into a full stop. But the train, which this time weighed nearly 7,000 tons and stretched out for more than 4,500 feet, required the length of two football fields to come to a stop.

By then, the train had rolled over the leg of 27-year-old Timothy Vega, fracturing his femur. He was rushed by medics into surgery at Maricopa Medical Center, according to a fire department report.

It was unclear why Vega was lying by the track. He gave police a home address on Mohave Street, not too far from the accident scene.

John Bromley, director of public affairs for Union Pacific, had no further information on the accident and no comment on Coleman's involvement in either of the incidents.

Union Pacific had initially rejected Coleman's application to be an engineer because of his impaired vision. But Coleman filed a federal lawsuit against the railroad contending that he was being discriminated against in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Union Pacific ultimately settled the lawsuit, paying Coleman $400,000 and giving him the job as an engineer.

Coleman also had been turned down for a job as a Navy nuclear propulsion specialist, he couldn't join the Air Force, and his commercial driver's license is restricted, prohibiting him from transporting passengers and certain amounts of hazardous waste.

It's likely that even a two-eyed engineer with excellent vision would have trouble seeing a man lying on the tracks in the dark. So the November 13 accident is probably better chalked up to bad luck than some sort of mistake made by an engineer with impaired vision.

And, as Bromley points out, despite the fact that trains occasionally hit and even kill people, people routinely dart in front of trains, ignore crossing signals or wander too close to the tracks. He thinks people just don't realize how hard it is to stop tons of moving steel, that an engineer can't just throw a brake switch and quickly bring a train to a screeching halt.

"The issue of stopping a train before it strikes a pedestrian along the tracks is really one of physics," Bromley says. "By the time they realize there's a problem, unfortunately they can't do anything about it."

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