AURORA | An RTD light-rail train driver will not face criminal charges for an R-Line derailment in January that resulted in a passenger’s foot being amputated after she was thrown from the train-car.
Arapahoe County prosecutors said an investigation revealed that train operator Jeremiah Hartzel caused the Aurora derailment because he did not properly slow the train as it approached a busy street-station with a 90-degree turn during a Jan. 28 snow storm.
Investigators pointed out that while Hartzel could have been charged with something like careless driving had he been driving a van or bus, there are no state laws addressing careless or reckless driving of a train.
“The evidence tends to establish that Mr. Hartzel’s actions, and inactions, as the operator of this train was the cause of the derailment,” investigators said in a report released Friday. “However, no state criminal statute directly addresses and punishes Hartzel’s conduct. Therefore, no criminal charges ethically can be filed by our office against Mr. Hartzel in connection with this incident.”
Aurora Police had asked in February that prosecutors file nine counts of assault against Hartzel, 33.
In February, RTD said excessive speed is what caused the R Line light rail car to derail during an early morning snowstorm last month.
RTD spokeswoman Pauletta Tonilas said the agency respected the Arapahoe County prosecutors’ decision but aimed to prevent the incident from happening ever again.
Tonilas added that, although the crash was a “very strange, freak incident,” RTD will emphasize safely operating light rail cars on curves in its trainings with operators.
Hartzel was driving the train car at about 30 miles per hour when it came off the tracks during a turn near Sable Boulevard and East Exposition Avenue on Jan. 28, RTD officials said.
The Arapahoe County investigation confirmed that. In great detail, investigators revealed how Hartzel did not properly slow the train down as it approached a 90-degree turn in central Aurora. When he braked, snow and other factors caused the train to continue to take the turn going three times faster than it should have, according to the DA’s report.
That caused the train to derail. The violent jolt threw a standing female passenger out of the train. Brush catchers on the front severed the woman’s foot, according to the report.
The operators make similar turns at about 10 miles per hour, RTD officials said. The investigation revealed the train hit the curve at about 30 mph.
RTD fired Hartzel after initially placing him on administrative leave, according to RTD.
Hartzel began working for RTD in October 2017, according to his LinkedIn profile.
Investigators said Hartzel was not intoxicated or in any other way disabled, and that errors he made in driving the train resulted in the derailment and passenger injuries.
The train left Aurora Metro Center Station at 7:13 a.m, according to investigators.
“In order to reach the Florida station, the train was to proceed briefly southbound along the tracks paralleling Sable, then make a 90-degree turn proceeding briefly eastbound on the tracks paralleling Exposition Ave, then make another 90-degree turn proceeding southbound on tracks paralleling Abilene Street, to the Florida station,” according to the report.
Hartzel drove the train about 4 mph faster than the 35 mph he was supposed and waited too long to slow down, especially regarding the snowpacked conditions, investigators said.
“Within less than a second of reaching the speed of 38.5 mph, Hartzel applied full brakes with the throttle control, resulting in a rapid deceleration of the train. Within a second of the full brakes being applied, a second braking system known as the “track brakes” was also applied, resulting in further rapid deceleration. This second set of brakes is operated through a so-called “deadman” switch, whereby Hartzel removed his foot from a switch on the floor, causing the “track brakes” to automatically be engaged,” investigators wrote.
Almost immediately, train sensors detected sliding wheels and dumped emergency sand on the tracks under the wheels. Seconds later, Hartzel hit an emergency brake, but the train was still going 30 mph.
“The right, inside train wheels derailed from the track, tilting the train significantly to its left, outside side,” according to the report.
Only because the train tilted and hit a cement pole, the train did not tip over on it’s side, according to the report.
The jolt through a female passenger through damaged train doors and in front of the still-moving train.
Video inside the train shows the passenger “losing her footing as the train ‘whipped’ to its left, and falling out of the train through the doors.”
A guard on the front of the train that acts as a plow to move obstructions ran into the woman’s leg and severed it from below the knee. The entire incident was captured on nearby video surveillance cameras.
Prosecutors said that although it’s clear Harztel was at least negligent and possibly careless in causing the derailment, there are no state charges that address his behavior.
“Colorado Revised Statutes contain no criminal laws specific to the operation of light rail trains,” according to the report. “The absence of any such statutes means that there are no state laws specific to Hartzel’s conduct as a light rail operator.”
“Therefore, no criminal charges ethically can be filed by our office against Mr. Hartzel in connection with this incident,” according to the report.