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Alarming spate of rail accidents raises safety concerns

Amtrak train 91, which was traveling from Penn Station in New York to Miami, should have been on the main line, but it was directed to tracks just east of it, where a CSX train was parked. (Photo: Shutterstock)

A Miami-bound Amtrak train was on the wrong track when it collided with a freight train in South Carolina at 2:35 a.m. in Cayce, South Carolina, just east of Columbia, killing the two engineers and injuring 116 of the 147 passengers. Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), said at a news conference Sunday afternoon that the track the Amtrak train was on had been manually switched and “lined and locked.” It caused it to divert from the main line and onto a side track, where the CSX freight train was parked.

“Of course key to this investigation is learning why that switch was lined that way because the expectation is the Amtrak would be cleared and would be operating straight down” the main line, Sumwalt said.

Richard Anderson, Amtrak’s president and chief executive officer, told reporters in a telephone news conference that CSX railroad operates all aspects of the tracks in the area where the crash occurred.

“They are in complete control of the track, the signaling, the switching and, in fact, our train engineers and conductors, as we move over their railroad, are directed and in regular contact with the dispatch center at CSX,” Anderson said.

He said at the time of the crash Amtrak crew was communicating with a CSX dispatcher via a telephone communication system. The signaling system that controls traffic on the four tracks in the area was down for maintenance.

“Normally the train is directed by the dispatcher and the dispatcher in this case was CSX,” Anderson said. “The control of which train is on which track is within the authority of the dispatcher and the host railroad that controls the switch.”

Amtrak train 91, traveling from Penn Station in New York to Miami, should have been on the main line, but was instead directed to tracks just east of it, where a CSX train was parked.

The speed the Amtrak train seems to have been 59 miles per hour, although still unofficial.

Sunwalt said the CSX train had two locomotives and 34 empty auto-rack cars. Prior to the Amtrak train’s arrival in the area, the CSX train had unloaded automobiles on the west side of the main line and then used it to back into a side track on the east side of the main line.

Asked if there was any evidence of a mechanical problem with the rail switch that diverted the Amtrak onto the side track, Sumwalt said, “We were able to see that it was actually literally locked with a padlock to make it lined to go into the siding.”

He said typically when rail switches are mechanically thrown “the conductor will get out and lock it in that particular position.” The investigation will focus on why the rail switch wasn’t put back to allow the Amtrak train to keep moving straight down the main line.

Sumwalt also said a front-facing video camera in the Amtrak locomotive had been recovered and sent to the NTSB laboratory in Washington, D.C. to be analyzed. He said the train’s event data recorder, which should say the exact speed of the train when it crashed and if the crew tried to apply the brakes, had not been located as of Sunday evening.

“I can tell you there’s catastrophic damage to each of the locomotives,” Sumwalt said. “In fact, I would say that the Amtrak locomotive would be not recognizable at all.”

The CSX controlled tracks were not equipped with Positive Train Control (PTC), a high-tech overlay system Amtrak uses on tracks it operates. The system is designed to read signals and automatically stop a train before accidents occur.

“An operational PTC system is designed to prevent this type of accident,” Sumwalt said.

Sunday’s wreck was the third fatal Amtrak incident since mid-December, and just five days after an Amtrak train carrying Republican members of Congress collided with a garbage truck in western Virginia, killing one passenger and injuring several others.

It also comes at a time when train deaths are trending up. In some regions of the US, there are signs that the increasing deaths may be tied to a massive energy-driven transformation underway on railroads. Amtrak has long complained that one of its issues for running more efficient operations is that it has to share the same rail that freight operators also use. Adding to the risk is Amtrak’s own surge. Railroads have been expanding for the past several years as well, investing tens of billions on laying new track, doubling existing track, buying locomotives and building terminals.

So what about PTC? Nearly 10 years ago Congress mandated deployment of PTC by the end of 2015. Then, a bipartisan bill was introduced to extend the safety system another five more years.

So would PTC have been able to save the two lives of the Amtrak engineers as Sumwalt says? That’s harder to answer, and the public will have to await the final analysis and report of the NTSB.

PTC is a complex, nationwide system of newly developed technologies that continuously relays critical information such as speed limits, train movement authorization, switch positions, work zone locations and other operational data. It must factor in locomotive and rail car mix; train length, weight and speed; terrain and signal aspects to determine safe stopping distances. This conservatism in the “braking curve” slows the rail network’s velocity and, thus, reduces capacity and ability to handle more freight. Additionally, any PTC hardware or software component failure also defaults to stopping the train, thus reducing rail network capacity.

Implementing PTC properly requires integrating thousands of components across the telecommunications spectrum, such as GPS, Wi-Fi, radios, cellular technology, antennae, base stations and first-of-its-kind software that decides when to slow or stop a train a but it will be used nationwide, with effectively all trains implementing the system or similar ones.

PTC must be “interoperable” –- passenger, commuter and freight trains must be able to seamlessly communicate and operate across all railroad systems. Any breakdown in interoperability presents unacceptable risks to the safety and efficiency of America’s rail network. Additionally, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) must review each railroad’s PTC safety plan and certify the PTC system after development and testing of components is completed. This certification is mandatory before PTC-controlled trains can go into service.

Because of the locked position of the rail switch that the CSX dispatcher’s were responsible for, and due to the speed of the Amtrak passenger train, coupled with the relatively short distance before impact of the idle (and recently unloaded) CSX train, one cannot say for certain whether the PTC system would have worked. It is, no doubt, the very kind of event that it is intended to prevent.

The accident also comes at a time when other rail safety legislation was introduced just last week. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), introduced a bill requiring two-person crews on freight trains.

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