Less than two weeks after a fatal crash between an Amtrak train and a freight locomotive in South Carolina, the National Transportation Safety Board is urging federal railroad officials to issue an emergency order that would require trains to travel at reduced speeds in areas where rail-signaling systems are temporarily disabled and confirm that track switches are in the correct position before moving forward.
The order is designed to add an extra layer of safety along rail corridors and prevent a repeat of the events that led to a collision between an Amtrak passenger train and a CSX freight train Feb. 4 near Cayce, S.C. An Amtrak engineer and a conductor were killed in the crash that sent more than 100 people to a hospital.
“While the collision remains under investigation, we know that signal suspensions are an unusual operating condition, used for signal maintenance, repair and installation that have the potential to increase the risk of train collisions,” NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said.
It is not clear whether the Federal Railroad Administration will act on the NTSB’s urgent recommendation.
“Safety is the absolute priority of the FRA,” the agency said in a statement. “We will review the safety recommendations NTSB announced Thursday morning. FRA remains committed to keeping the traveling public safe.” A spokesman declined to give a specific timeline, saying only that “it is being addressed.”
Work crews had temporarily disabled the signaling system on the stretch of track near Cayce. But dispatchers responsible for directing trains through the corridor were not aware that a rail switch had been locked in the wrong position when they sent the Amtrak train through the area at the normal speed limit. When the passenger train traveled over the misaligned switch, it veered off the main track onto a side track and collided with the parked freight train.
NTSB officials cited a similar collision between two Union Pacific freight trains in March 2016.
“In both accidents, safe movement of the trains through the signal suspension depended on proper switch alignment, which, in turn, relied on error-free manual work,” NTSB officials noted. “The risk of error in the manual work was not safeguarded, either by technology or supervision. Thus, the reliance on error-free human performance for safe train movement created a single point-of-failure in the operating practices currently used and in compliance with extant regulations.”
The NTSB also issued two other urgent safety recommendations tied to a fatal incident on the Long Island Rail Road in June in which a roadway worker was hit by a train. NTSB called on the rail system to audit its track safety practices and take any corrective actions that come from the review.
“The safety of our employees and customers is the absolute top priority for everyone at the MTA,” said Aaron Donovan, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transit Authority. “We have robust safety programs and training in place and very strict rules and regulations to ensure worker safety. We will work closely with NTSB as we implement their recommendations.”