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Federal officials focus on why railroad switch was set in the wrong position in S.C. Amtrak crash that killed 2

An Amtrak train collided with a freight train near Columbia, S.C., on Feb. 4, killing 2 and injuring more than 100 in Amtrak's second fatal crash in a week. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)
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Federal safety officials are focusing on why a railroad switch was set in the wrong position sending an New York-to-Miami bound Amtrak train with more than 140 people aboard off the main line and onto a side track where it collided with an empty freight train early Sunday.

Two people were killed and 116 injured in the crash that occurred around 2:35 a.m. in Cayce, S.C., a few miles south of Columbia, officials said. The two men who died were Amtrak employees — the  engineer and conductor who were riding in the front of the train.

The Lexington County coroner identified the victims as engineer Michael Kempf, 54, of Savannah, Ga., and conductor Michael Cella, 36, of Orange Park, Fla.

The crash caused the lead engine and “some passenger cars” to derail, Amtrak officials said. The CSX train was parked on a track next to the main railroad line and was empty, according to South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R).

In a briefing with reporters Sunday afternoon, Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the crash, detailed what is known so far.

The Amtrak train, traveling on tracks owned and maintained by freight railway giant, CSX, was supposed to pass over the switch to continue on to the main line tracks, but instead was directed onto the pad-locked crossing into a portion of track known as “siding” which was occupied by a parked CSX train, Sumwalt said.

“For whatever reason that switch was, as they say in the railroad industry, ‘lined and locked,’” he said. “Which basically means it was aligned for the train coming this way to be diverted into the siding.”

“Key to this investigation [is] why that switch was lined that way,” Sumwalt said.

He said investigators have recovered the front-facing video camera from the Amtrak train and that it has been sent to labs at NTSB headquarters in Washington, D.C., where it will be reviewed. The footage will be important because it can offer details about what happened in the minutes before the collision.

However, he added that investigators have been unable to recover the event data recorders from either train in part because of the extent of the damage.

Sumwalt said there was “. . . catastrophic damage to each of the locomotives,” adding that the Amtrak locomotive “. . . was not recognizable at all.”

Derrec Becker of the South Carolina Emergency Management Division said injuries from the crash included minor cuts and broken bones. Lexington County spokesman Harrison Cahill said passengers who were hurt were taken to local hospitals, but none had life-threatening injuries.

There were two leaks from the train, spilling an estimated 5,000 gallons of fuel, but there was “no threat to the public at this time,” Cahill said at a morning news conference.  He later said that it was unclear from where the fuel had leaked.

It will take several months to determine the cause of the crash, Sumwalt said. But he added that he expected to have more details Monday. In addition to investigators from the NTSB, personnel from the Federal Railroad Administration, which oversees the safety of the nation’s railroads are also at the site.

“The Federal Railroad Administration Investigative team is on site to support to the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation,” the U.S. Department of Transportation said in a statement. “We are closely monitoring the situation and have  been in contact with CSX and Amtrak as well as federal, state and local officials.”

The Transportation Department said Secretary Elaine Chao also sent her senior adviser, Jim Ray, to the crash site.

“It is important to understand the factors that contributed to this tragic accident and how all stakeholders can ensure a safe and reliable rail system going forward,” the DOT statement said.

Sumwalt said NTSB investigators had heard, but not confirmed, reports that maintenance work was being performed on the signal system prior to Sunday’s crash.

Officials from CSX said its personnel were on the scene assisting state and local authorities, but did not respond to questions about whether the collision could have been the result of a switch issue or if there had been other issues — including a signal outage — on that stretch of track.

Earlier in the day, Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson said that the signalling system was not operating, which is why trains were being directed through the corridor manually by CSX dispatchers.

Anderson said CSX owns and controls the Columbia Subdivision tracks where the crash occurred and is responsible for overseeing the dispatching of trains and signal systems.

“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, adding, “. . . the signals and particularly the switches are controlled by CSX.”

He said he did not know the reason for the signal outage. Anderson said the Amtrak train would normally travel on the main line track, not the section of the track where the collision occurred.

“As I said, control of which train is on which track is within the authority of the dispatcher and the host railroad that controls the switch,” Anderson said.

Tom Allen, program manager for the South Carolina Office of Regulatory Staff, which oversees rail safety in the state, said the collision could have been the result of a switch issue that sent the Amtrak train away from the main track and toward the parked freight train. But he emphasized it will be up to federal investigators to determine the cause.

President Trump offered his words of support and thanked first responders in a tweet sent Sunday morning.

This is the third crash involving an Amtrak train in less than three months. Last week, a special charter Amtrak train carrying GOP lawmakers to a retreat in West Virginia collided with a garbage truck. One person in the truck was killed in the crash in Crozet, Va. In December, an Amtrak train in Washington state derailed while crossing an overpass, spilling cars onto a busy highway and killing three people.

Federal investigators have not determined the cause of the earlier crashes; investigations can take months or even years, but the incidents are likely to raise concerns about the safety of the nation’s rail system and focus more attention on the push to install a technology known as positive train control, an automatic braking system that federal safety officials say could have prevented hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries over the years.

One person killed after train carrying GOP leaders collides with garbage truck in Crozet, Va.

Even though it is early in the investigation, Sumwalt was adamant about the benefits of positive train control, and how it could have factored into an incident like Sunday’s.

“An operational PTC system is designed to prevent this type of accident,” he said. “A fully operational positive train control system could have avoided this accident, and that’s what it was designed to do.”

Asked for a simple explanation of such a system, Sumwalt said it would automatically halt a train entering an occupied track.

“If you have a red signal … and you go blasting through that signal, it will enforce that signal and [not] allow you to go through that signal,” he said.

In a letter sent last month to railroad industry officials, Chao warned them that they are expected to meet the federal deadline to have the systems installed by the end of this year.

Chao warns railroads they must meet the deadline on PTC

On Sunday, Amtrak’s Anderson also emphasized that it was important for railroads to meet the Dec. 31 deadline to install PTC.

He did not know if it could have prevented Sunday’s crash, but said the track components involved would likely have been covered under such a system.

“Theoretically a well-run operable PTC system not only would cover speed, but would also cover switches and signals,” he said. It’s “. . . . .important that PTC be implemented by the end of the year and that we don’t give any extensions.”

Amtrak passenger Derek Pettaway said he woke with a jolt when the collision happened Sunday, suffering minor whiplash. He had taken shelter with other passengers at the nearby Pine Ridge Middle School, where authorities were providing medical care. “No one was panicking. I think most people were asleep. I think people were more in shock,” Pettaway said in an interview with CNN.

The White House press pool was told that President Trump had been briefed on the situation and was receiving regular updates. Other officials also offered statements of support. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) said his “prayers are with the families of those killed.”

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) said those who were affected were in his thoughts.

Sumwalt said the Amtrak train contained seven passenger cars and one locomotive, while the CSX train contained two locomotives and 34 empty “autorack” cars, meant for transporting automobiles.

“The expectation of course was that the Amtrak would be operating straight down” the track, Sumwalt said.

Luz Lazo and Alisa Tang contributed to this report.