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.
A 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.
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.