Prichard Police identified James Elder as the Alabama Export Railroad (ALE) engineer who operated the Canadian National train that collided with heavy equipment on the tracks between Main Street and Wilson Avenue on November 17, 2020.
Several contractors were using the equipment, which included a backhoe and a boom truck, to install railroad ties. One of the workers, Dexter Scott of Laurel, Mississippi, died.
An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board found the engineer was distracted by a video conversation on a personal cellphone while the train was in motion, a violation of Federal Railroad Administration regulations. The report says the engineer “did not apply brakes, sound the train’s horn or take other actions to mitigate or prevent the collision.”
The train was traveling at 19 mph around a curve when it hit the boom truck, which knocked the backhoe into the workers, killing one contractor and injuring three others, the NTSB report states.
The NTSB determined the probable cause for the deadly crash was “the failure of the engineer to operate his train in accordance with restricted speed requirements and stop before colliding with the equipment because he was engaged in the prohibited use of a personal electronic device.”
The report says, under federal speed restrictions, the train should have been able to “stop within one-half the range of vision of the person operating the train.”
Minutes before impact, a camera inside the train showed the engineer taking off his hat and placing it in front of the camera. Most of the camera’s view was blocked, but the engineer could still partially be seen holding his phone, the investigation revealed. The camera also showed the engineer vaping while operating the train.
As a result of the collision, the engineer was decertified and fired, the NTSB report says.
Elder, 49, was booked into Mobile County Metro Jail on Tuesday, August 30, 2022, on a manslaughter charge. He was released on $75,000 bond the same day.
The grand jury indictment on the manslaughter charge states Elder was “recklessly using a cellular device while operating a locomotive.”
Manslaughter is a Class B felony in Alabama that carries up to a 20-year sentence.
The NTSB report also found the railroad crew installing the ties did not take proper measures to ensure their safety. The report says the portable derails, which are purposefully used to safely derail a train if one enters a work zone, were removed before all workers and equipment were off the track. The report identified this as a contributing factor to the collision.
ALE took several corrective actions following the deadly collision. Those actions, outlined in the NTSB report, included:
- Reducing the maximum speed on ALE tracks in Mobile to 10 mph
- Holding safety meetings with all ALE engineers
- Training workers on the importance of communication