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Despite human error, technology could have prevented Amtrak crash

The initial investigation into the deadly train crash in South Carolina indicates that railroad company CSX is at fault. A switch on the tracks was locked in the wrong position, diverting the Amtrak passenger train into a parked CSX train.

Two Amtrak employees were killed and more than 100 passengers and crew members suffered injuries. Adding to the tragedy, federal officials say available safety technology – whose implementation has been postponed – would have prevented the derailment. 

A switched track sent passenger train on collision course

In the early morning hours on Sunday, Feb. 4, an Amtrak train heading from New York to Miami crashed into a freight train near Cayce, South Carolina. The tracks are owned and operated by CSX, one of the country’s largest rail transportation firms. CSX also owned the freight train that was parked on the tracks.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the track had been switched and padlocked, presumably by CSX personnel who forgot to switch it back. This diverted the southbound Amtrak passenger train into a side track, where it collided with the CSX train and derailed.

Two employees in the locomotive were killed, and 116 of the people aboard suffered injuries ranging from minor to critical. One passenger described a nightmare scenario with “bodies everywhere.”

Signaling system was disabled … to prep for modern safety enhancements

Investigators say that the Amtrak train was traveling at 50-plus mph just before the South Carolina crash. The engineer spotted the switched track moments before the accident and hit the brakes, but an NTSB official said there was no way the train could have stopped in time.

However, safety technology known as Positive Train Control most likely would have averted the crash. The system recognizes danger ahead (such as switched tracks or oncoming trains) and automatically slows or stops the locomotive. The NTSB has advocated for Positive Train Control for many years. It was previously mandated to be implemented by 2015, but after industry pushback the implementation deadline was extended to the end of 2018.

An NTSB official said that a signaling system using current technology also might have given the Amtrak crew time to stop. But in a sad irony, CSX had recently taken the signal system offline in anticipation of installing Positive Train Control. The unfortunate timing of the switching error resulted in tragedy. It is that type of human error that PTC hopes to eliminate.

This is the third crash involving an Amtrak train in the last three months. In December, an Amtrak train derailed in Washington state when it took a tight curve at 80 mph, killing three people and injuring another 100. Safety experts say Positive Train Control likely would prevented that crash too, as the train was going more than twice the allowable speed when it jumped the tracks on a freeway overpass.

Who is responsible in a train crash?

There will soon be lawsuits for personal injury or wrongful death in a catastrophic and high-profile train crash. There may be many theories, counterarguments and cross-claims, and more than 100 plaintiffs. There may be multiple jurisdictions, with cases filed in federal court and/or South Carolina state court.

While preliminary reports point to CSX as the culprit, the investigation may reveal that errors or negligence on the part of Amtrak or other parties also contributed to the crash. Hopefully, the injury victims and grieving families will get timely answers and full justice for a preventable accident.

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