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United States

Deadly South Carolina train crash caused by track locked in wrong position, says safety chief

Two people were killed and 116 injured in Sunday’s crash between an Amtrak passenger train and a stationary goods train

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 February, 2018, 8:23am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 February, 2018, 8:23am

A train switch that was apparently locked in the wrong position is being blamed for a train collision early Sunday that killed two people and injured up to 116 others near Cayce, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said Sunday afternoon that there’s no evidence of foul play, although the FBI is assisting in the investigation.

At least two dead, dozens injured after trains collide in South Carolina

In the accident, an Amtrak train slammed into a stationary CSX goods train at 2.35am. An NTSB official declined to say if the accident was the fault of CSX, but noted that CSX is responsible for maintaining proper track position. CSX is the owner of the track but Amtrak uses the line.

A switch was aligned and locked to divert the Amtrak train onto a side track, where the CSX goods train was parked. The train, estimated to be travelling at more than 80km/h in a 95km/h zone, then slammed into the line of freight cars, officials said. Sumwalt said there was “no way” the Amtrak train could have stopped to avoid a collision.

“The key to this investigation is learning why that switch was lined that way,” Sumwalt said at a news conference. He said “our goal is to find out not only what happened, but why it happened so we can prevent it from happening again.’’

Sumwalt, a Columbia native in town when the accident occurred, said a safety system known as “positive train control’’ could have saved lives in the accident in South Carolina, as it could with other train wrecks across the country. The NTSB has been trying for 40 years to have such controls implemented, he said.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration, Congress required some railroad mainlines, including those with commuter rail passenger service, to fully implement positive train control by the end of 2015. But Congress extended the deadline by at least three years to December 31, 2018, according to the FRA.

Such technology acts similar to a braking system, to prevent crashes. If signals ahead indicate a problem, the positive train control is supposed to slow down the locomotive remotely.

“Every one of these accidents, in fact, could have been prevented’’ by positive train controls, Sumwalt said. “How many years have we been calling for PTC?’

Positive train controls are designed to compensate for human error, such as leaving a train switch in the wrong position, officials said.

“This is indeed a tragic human error,’’ Sumwalt said.