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NTSB reiterates call for new safety measures along rail corridors in preliminary report on S.C. Amtrak crash

National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt presents the ongoing investigation to the media during a news conference at SC Emergency Management Division in Cayce, S.C., on Feb. 4, 2018. Two Amtrak employees were killed and more than 100 other people were injured ewhen a passenger train carrying 147 people hit a CSX freight train in South Carolina, authorities said. (LOGAN CYRUS/AFP/Getty Images)

Federal officials Wednesday reiterated their call for the Federal Railroad Administration to issue an emergency order for new safety measures along rail corridors when work crews temporarily disable signalling systems designed to safely manage train traffic.

report released Wednesday by investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board, offered few new details about the head-on collision between an Amtrak passenger train and a CSX freight train Feb. 11 in Cayce, S.C. Two Amtrak employees, an engineer and a conductor, were killed in the crash. More than 90 others were hospitalized.

Fatal collision is the second in less than a week involving Amtrak

But the report indicated that NTSB officials remain concerned about the risk of additional collisions, particularly along stretches of track where maintenance may mean normal safeguards — such as signalling systems — are not in place.

NTSB investigators said work crews had temporarily disabled the signaling system that would normally direct trains on that stretch of track near Cayce. But officials said 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 said they are still trying to recover footage from the Amtrak locomotive’s front-facing video camera. Investigators were able to find the camera, but said the footage ended before the trains collided. They also have recovered the event recorder from the CSX locomotive.

In a briefing with reporters shortly after the collision, NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said the crash likely could have been avoided had a technology known as positive train control been in place. PTC would have detected the railroad switch was in the wrong position and stopped the Amtrak train from proceeding, he said. Railroads, including commuter rail systems such as Maryland’s MARC and Virginia’s VRE, are required to have the system in place by the end of this year, but efforts to install it have lagged.

In Cayce, officials said the signalling system had been disabled along that rail corridor to allow crews to work on installation of a PTC system. The rail corridor where the crash took place, is owned and operated by freight giant CSX.

As an interim step,  NTSB officials last month urged FRA officials to issue an emergency order that would require trains to travel at reduced speeds when moving in areas where signalling systems are not operating and force them to confirm that track switches are in the correct position before moving forward. The NTSB cited a similar collision between two Union Pacific freight trains in urging the rail safety regulators to act.

NTSB officials call for new safety measures in the wake of an Amtrak crash in Cayce, S.C.

FRA officials said Wednesday that no decision has been made on whether they will issue the order.

NTSB’s preliminary report on the crash in Cayce, was released the same day the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report saying that as many as two-thirds of the nation’s 29 commuter railroads may not have allocated enough time to meet the requirements to install a PTC system or may not meet the criteria needed to qualify for a two-year extension.  The report also found that the FRA does not yet have a formal process in place to ensure railroads are getting consistent information and are meeting the requirements needed for certification.

The report offered two recommendations: that the FRA establish a system for helping railroads understand what requirements they must meet in order to qualify for an extension and that the agency’s administrator should develop a system for identifying the most pressing issues facing railroads installing PTC and allocate federal resources to address those that present the greatest risk. In their response to the GAO’s finding, FRA officials agreed with the recommendations.

In an email, an FRA spokesman outlined what actions the agency would take:

Throughout the calendar year 2018, FRA will strategically increase its oversight actions and technical assistance to accelerate at-risk railroads’ implementation of PTC systems.  Examples of these actions include:

  • Meeting with the executive leadership and technical teams of each of the 41 railroads subject to the statutory mandate to help ensure railroads understand the statutory requirements and deadline, to discuss the challenges the railroads continue to experience, and the railroads’ precise plans for compliance with the statutory mandate.
  • FRA will use the information it continues to learn from these 41 meetings and railroads’ Quarterly PTC Progress Reports for Quarter 1 of 2018 to support its risk-based strategy for oversight in the railroads’ PTC system installation, testing and operation.

The GAO report is expected to be the topic of a hearing Thursday before the Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which is examining the issue of positive train control.  Those expected to testify include Susan Fleming, director of physical infrastructure for the Government Accountability Office and Richard Anderson, president and chief executive officer of Amtrak.