Amtrak Crash in South Carolina Kills 2, Latest in a Disturbing Trend
A train track in South Carolina became the site of disaster early Sunday when an Amtrak train traveling on the wrong line collided with a parked group of freight cars. Two Amtrak employees were killed, and over 115 of the trains passengers were taken to local hospitals to be treated for injuries. The crash became the third accident in less than two months for Amtrak, sparking concern for the lax safety regulations of the corporation.
The crash on Sunday likely occurred as a result of miscommunication between Amtrak and the company which owned the stopped freight train, CSX. It appeared that normal railside safety signals were down for routine maintenance during the time of the collision, and that CSX failed to flip a vital switch to prevent other trains from connecting onto the track it was using.
The Amtrak passenger train, which had been given the signal to precede by the central train control, hit the CSX freight train at around 56 mph, instantly killing both the conductor and engineer sitting in the front of the train. Passengers on the train described the crash as “surreal” and the wreck of the crash,“barely recognizable.”
Amtrak has faced a record number or crashes and collisions in recent months. Last Wednesday, an Amtrak train carrying GOP lawmakers bound for a weekend retreat slammed into a garbage truck attempting to cross the tracks, killing one. A few months before, in mid December, 3 passengers were killed when an Amtrak train jumped the tracks near Seattle, Washington.
The recent spate of malfunctions within Amtrak has caused many to question the safety of the nationwide train corporation. Mark Rosenkar the former Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (N.T.S.B.) echoed these sentiments, declaring that, “accidents are never one thing. They’re a chain of events which come together which create a catastrophic result.”
Amtrak has been quick to respond to critics that put its safety in question, commenting that the most recent crash in South Carolina was the fault of the CSX corporation. In an email to its staff, the President of Amtrak, Richard Anderson, declared that the crashed train was, “on the track as dispatched by CSX, the host railroad ... Our crew on 91 was cleared to proceed by CSX dispatch, but CSX had lined and padlocked the switch off the mainline to the siding, causing the collision.”
A major factor in the current discussion of Amtrak’s safety is the implementation of Positive Train Control (PTC), an advanced system of sensors and GPS to prevent train collisions by detecting impending crashes and automatically applying brakes. In 2008, after a train collision in Los Angeles killed 25 people, Congress mandated that PTC should be implemented nationwide.
Despite having been over a decade since being ordered, PTC has yet to reach all of America’s train tracks. The track on which the crash occurred on Sunday, had numerous safety signals shut down because they were being updated with the latest PTC technology. experts are in agreement that the South Carolina collision would have easily been preventable had the PTC technology been fully installed.
On Sunday, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) said that the, “inaction is inexcusable” in the delay of the nationwide implementation of PTC in all of Amtrak’s systems. The current chairman of the N.T.S.B., Robert Sumwalt has also shared his grievances with the railroad company, “Amtrak's safety culture is failing, and is primed to fail again.”
The final deadline for PTC to be installed by all trains is December 31st, 2020. In the current moment it seems unlikely that Amtrak will be able to meet that deadline, as it has yet to finish installing PTC across the large parts of the Eastern Seaboard. Until nationwide implementation is achieved, highly preventable collisions like the one on Sunday are expected to continue.