Federal safety investigators Tuesday pressed railroad officials on whether enough is being done to ensure passenger safety in the wake of two fatal Amtrak crashes, in Washington state and South Carolina.
Executives from Amtrak and CSX sought to assure members of the National Transportation Safety Board that they are taking aggressive steps to identify and tackle safety problems.
Even so, NTSB member Earl Weener expressed concern that too often safety efforts resemble a game of “whack-a-mole” in which officials chase problems rather than get ahead of them.
“Assessing what the risk is has to change,” he said.
The comments came during the first of two days of investigative hearings focused on passenger rail safety after the crashes. The hearings will not determine the cause of the calamities. Instead, they are designed to give NTSB members and investigators the opportunity to question witnesses and gather additional evidence to determine what factors might have contributed.
“We are all here for the same reason — to stop these,” board member T. Bella Dinh-Zarr said.
On Dec. 18, an Amtrak train making its inaugural run on a new service from Seattle to Portland, Ore., derailed after it hit a sharp curve of track south of Seattle. Three people were killed and more than 100 were injured. Investigators determined the train was traveling 78 mph when it hit the curve, which had a 30-mph speed limit.
Based on interviews with the conductor, investigators think that the engineer lost track of where he was and failed to slow the train in time.
Less than two months later, two people were killed and 116 were injured when an Amtrak passenger train collided with a CSX freight train that was parked on a side track near Cayce, S.C. Investigators said a railroad switch locked in the wrong position sent the Amtrak train off the mainline track onto the side track. The two men killed were the Amtrak engineer and conductor, who were riding in the front of the train.
The Amtrak train was operating on tracks owned by CSX. At the time of the crash the signaling system was not operating, so the train was being guided through the area manually.
In interviews with investigators, the conductor said that he thought he had left the switch in the proper position. CSX officials said they have modified their procedures to ensure that multiple people sign off on whether a switch has been properly positioned.
The interview with the conductor was among thousands of pages of documents released as part of the investigation.
Shortly after the crash, the NTSB urged federal railroad officials to issue emergency orders requiring trains to travel at slower speeds in areas where signaling systems are temporarily disabled and to confirm that switches are in the correct position before moving forward.
On Tuesday, NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt pressed officials from the Federal Railroad Administration on when they would act on the emergency order.
“We are curious to know where the FRA is going with this,” Sumwalt said. “We do not believe that just having people on the ground to verify that [the switch] is in the proper position is the be all end all.”
FRA officials said they are instead addressing the NTSB’s concerns through the rulemaking process.
Sumwalt also pressed CSX officials about whether changes in the company’s executive leadership and staff cuts may have prompted the company to focus on operations at the expense of safety. He noted that while shareholder reports highlighted efficiency and earnings, there was no mention of safety.
Matthew Meadows, director of operating rules and practices for CSX, said safety continues to be a priority at the company.
Amtrak told the panel that it has changed how it operates when its trains travel on tracks that it does not own.
“One of the lessons we’ve learned is establishing systemwide standards,” said Justin Meko, vice president for safety, compliance and training at Amtrak.
Instead of simply accepting operating rules from the host railroad, Amtrak now does its own evaluation of how best to safely operate, he said.
During the afternoon portion of the hearing, the focus shifted to the crash in Washington state. The Amtrak train was on its inaugural run, using a 14.5-mile bypass to avoid a more scenic but slower passage along the coastline to speed the trip between Seattle and Portland. There are concerns about whether the engineer had received sufficient training on the new service.
Investigators also raised questions about the quality of the rail cars, which did not meet crash-protection standards established in 1999. Even so, the FRA granted Amtrak a waiver to use them on the route.
The hearings continue Wednesday.