Archive | Speed often factor in fatal train wrecks

Cities, towns strive to slow down

Staff WritersMarch 6, 2005 

Swift-moving trains routinely kill people when they crash on the nation's railroad tracks--and local governments have almost no power to slow them.

In the past decade, 77 percent of all fatal accidents on the nation's main rail lines occurred when trains ran at speeds of 45 mph or higher, according to federal records analyzed by The State newspaper. More than 280 people died in the crashes, the newspaper's analysis found. The records also showed speeds of 45 mph or faster were involved in: * 70 percent of fatal accidents involving freight trains, such as the two recent accidents in Graniteville

* 81 percent of the fatal car-train accidents at street crossings.

These statistics aren't often discussed publicly by the railroad industry, which notes most of the nation's train accidents occur at lower speeds, frequently less than 30 mph.

But the newspaper's analysis, which focused on fatal wrecks on the nation's main tracks, shows the dangers of high speeds at a time when trains' speeds and their potentially hazardous cargo are under increased scrutiny.

The findings also bolster arguments, some city leaders say, for more local control over speeding trains.

Federal law effectively bars cities and states from setting local train speed limits. The federal government bases train speeds on the quality of the track, rather than how congested an area is.

Consequently, trains often roll through South Carolina cities at 45 mph or better, whizzing past busy intersections, schools, churches and neighborhoods.

Many freight trains are loaded with deadly chemicals that can spill in a derailment. Most trains are so heavy they will crush a car if the vehicles collide.

Each scenario played out recently in Graniteville, where 14 people died in two separate accidents. Trains in each wreck were traveling an estimated 45 mph.

"If a train is going more than 45 mph, you are going to have fatalities if it hits a vehicle,'' said state municipal association director Howard Duvall, whose organization is hosting a meeting Wednesday to discuss train safety.

"Cities need to be at the table when you are deciding the speeds these trains go through a city, or at least that needs to be done at the state level. We don't think the federal government should pre-empt the authority of state and local governments to regulate this important safety issue,'' he said.

Warren Flatau, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration said he wasn't surprised by The State's analysis of FRA accident statistics. But Flatau and rail industry officials defended the federal system governing train speeds.

The system works if motorists obey crossing signal warnings and train companies properly maintain their tracks, officials said. In fact, the process of slowing down trains could actually increase chances of a derailment, they said. Trains need a steady speed to operate most effectively, according to the FRA.

Industry officials also said it would hurt the economy if every city and county established slower speeds.

The industry depends on getting goods to customers on time, rail officials say. That includes moving trains at a reasonable speed through South Carolina, say officials with Norfolk Southern and CSX, the state's major freight carriers.

"We are in the business of delivering goods to consumers and businesses that count on us every day," said Norfolk Southern spokeswoman Susan Terpay, whose company is being sued over the Graniteville train crashes.


Despite those arguments, others say its hard to justify trains traveling through congested areas at high speeds.

In November 2004, a Norfolk Southern train collided with a car, killing five textile workers trying to cross a track at Graniteville near Aiken. A second crash Jan. 6 killed nine people when a train derailed, spilling poisonous chlorine gas.

The federal government hasn't pinpointed a single cause for the wrecks yet. But speed is one factor being examined by federal officials, Flatau said.

Aiken area leaders say they were worried about railroad speeds long before the Graniteville tragedies. They pleaded unsuccessfully for at least six years to slow Norfolk Southern trains through Graniteville.

After the January accident, Norfolk Southern slowed its trains from a company-set 49 mph to a new 25 mph.

State Sen. Tommy Moore, D-Aiken, said his constituents wonder why cities can set speed limits for cars, but not trains.

"One lady asked 'Why can trains go faster than cars?'" Moore said. "It didn't make sense to me that you could go up to 49 mph through a very populated area."

Since Graniteville, Aiken-area officials have let U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham know their concerns. And Graham, R-S.C., has introduced a bill to make train traffic safer. It does not focus on speeds but could if speed is found to be a problem, a Graham spokesman said.

"Sen. Graham is using this bill as a starting point; he's open to any ideas," Kevin Bishop said, adding that not everyone wants trains to slow down.

Leaders in some cities, such as Irmo, say their bigger concern is slow trains that create traffic jams as rail cars rumble across street crossings.

"If they're faster, they don't hold up traffic as long," said Irmo Mayor John Gibbons, whose city of 12,000 is bisected by railroad lines and some of the Midlands' worst traffic.

Even so, Columbia Mayor Bob Coble said local governments should have some authority to regulate train speeds.

Although trains move slowly in areas near USC, the state capitol and USC's Williams-Brice Stadium, they pick up speed in other sections of town as they get back onto main lines and away from rail yards and side tracks. Gibbons said trains travel through Irmo at more than 40 mph.

Coble is concerned about chemical spills in Columbia but said "speed is an issue.''

The city of Columbia plans a meeting for the public Tuesday on city responses to train wrecks. The Municipal Association of S.C. will hold a session Wednesday in Columbia for officials of at least 27 cities interested in railroad safety.


One of those cities is Orangeburg, a university town of 13,000 residents about 40 miles southwest of Columbia.

Train tracks cut through some of the busiest intersections in the city and near S.C. State University. In the middle of town, at least five roads cross over the company's railroad lines, City Administrator John Yow said.

Since Norfolk Southern increased speeds from 15 to 49 mph about four years ago, Orangeburg leaders have complained about the possible danger of wrecks.

Speeds driven by Norfolk Southern trains do "not take into consideration the population, the density of population, traffic congestion, the number of road crossings or any of those things," Yow said.

One hot spot, Yow said, is a train track that crosses near the intersection of U.S. 301 and U.S. 601.

This was the site of a tragic accident March 7, 2002, when a Norfolk Southern train traveling at nearly 50 mph smashed into a car, killing a local football star and his 12-year-old passenger.

Police reports indicate that former Elloree High School player Antonio Singleton failed to yield the right of way to the Norfolk Southern train. But a lawsuit filed after the wreck says a warning signal malfunctioned at the road crossing.

The suit also says the train's "excessive'' speed contributed to the crash. Police reports show the train was traveling at 48 mph.

Singleton, who led Charleston Southern University in rushing in 2000, had dropped off his girlfriend at a doctor's office when he and the woman's younger brother died in the train wreck, said Singleton's aunt, Jennifer McCord.

"Trains don't have to come through that fast,'' McCord said, recalling when police told her Singleton had died.

"I just dropped the phone and ran outside. He was so close to me.''

Norfolk Southern would not comment on the case, but the company maintains it operates trains safely.

When its trains increased speed in Orangeburg, the company pledged to fight for more gates at highway-rail line grade crossings and to conduct public "safety blitzes.''

Norfolk Southern, like others in the railroad industry, says trains present little public threat if they are operated within the law and motorists heed warning signs at road crossings.

"The increased speed will allow us to get through the crossings faster, therefore, (with) less delay to the motoring public," company vice-president Frank Macchiaverna wrote in November 2000. "It will also facilitate smoother train operations for Norfolk Southern and our customers."


Railroad consultants say motorists and train engineers have little time to react in high-speed crashes.

It takes most people 2.5 seconds to size up the danger of an unknown situation, such as an unexpected train on a track, said David Middendorf, a railroad consultant from Knoxville, Tenn.

And at 45 mph, a train 100 yards from a road-crossing would strike a car in 4.5 seconds, according to calculations he made for The State. At 15 mph, the same train would take more than 13 seconds to strike a car, he said.

"If it's doing 45 mph, chances are you are not going to get off the track in time before it hits you," said Middendorf, whose firm is a consultant in an Orangeburg lawsuit involving a car-train wreck.

Herbert H. Richardson, who chaired a national study of railroad tank car safety in 1994, said trains traveling at higher speeds also increase the risk of tank car failures in a crash. Tank cars are a key way of hauling hazardous chemicals by rail.

Although he said tank cars have gotten safer in recent years, a recent report in the New York Times noted that about half the nation's 60,000 pressurized rail tank cars did not meet industry standards.

Richardson, director of the Texas Transportation Institute, said the Jan. 6 Graniteville train wreck and chemical leak prompted a tank car manufacturer to contact him about testing its rail cars "to make sure the cars are safe.''

Former CSX engineer Jim Scott, now a railroad consultant from Kingsport, Tenn., said the faster a train travels, the harder it is to stop.

At 15 mph, a fully loaded freight train, carrying mixed cargo and weighing about 8,000 tons, could stop within 200 yards in an emergency, he said.

But at 45 mph, the same train would take up to 600 yards to stop in an emergency, he said.

At 55 mph, it could take a train about a mile to stop, according to Operation Lifesaver, a train safety organization.

In a 1998 federal register notice, the FRA disputes the notion that slower speeds would matter in a grade-crossing accident. The FRA says it doesn't matter how fast a train is going, it can't stop quickly.

To railroad companies' credit, Scott said they sometimes will voluntarily obey city-recommended speed limits, even though they don't have to. They also will take into consideration curves in tracks that should not be taken at higher speeds.


Major railroad companies and trade associations say they need to move trains at reasonable speeds to meet market demands.

They note that many car-train wrecks are caused when automobile drivers fail to regard warning signals or lights. But they also say that while high-speed wrecks will result in fatalities, federal data show that speed doesn't cause more wrecks.

"There is nothing to indicate that train speed increases the possibility of an accident," said Tom White, a spokesman for the Association of American Railroads, an industry group.

Trains transport about 42 percent of the nation's freight, White said. The nation's main railroad companies, which include Norfolk Southern and CSX, haul everything from coal and chemicals to wood products. Major freight railroads have operating revenues of more than $270 million, according to the Association of American Railroads.

By law, the speed of every train in the country is based on a federal system of ranking tracks for quality and safety.

The highest-grade tracks now used in the U.S. allow speeds of up to 160 mph for passenger trains because the rails are engineered to handle those speeds. In contrast, the lowest-grade tracks allow maximum speeds of just 10 mph.

Most trains travel on "Class 4" tracks, which allow speeds of up to 60 mph.

The FRA can require a train company to lower a speed if it deems that certain conditions warrant it, the FRA's Flatau said.

Federal railroad officials have long maintained that states and cities don't have authority to regulate train speeds. The U.S. Supreme Court reinforced that position in 1993.

In CSX vs. Easterwood, the Supreme Court found that federal law trumped state law. States have some authority to regulate railroads, but are limited by the interstate commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution. By U.S. law, states cannot place an "unreasonable burden" on interstate commerce.

Some cities, however, aren't happy about it.

McCormick Mayor Miriam Patterson said a train derailed on the edge of the Upstate town of 2,500 about 15 years ago, prompting an evacuation because of a possible chemical leak.

Patterson and Greenwood City Councilman Herbert Vaughn said local governments should have some authority over train speeds.

"Local governments are charged with protecting the citizens, and I think we should have some say so," Vaughn said. "You need to look at safety first."

< Reach Fretwell at (803) 771-8537 or Reach Brundrett at (803) 771-8484 or


Railroad companies contacted by The State would not provide track speeds set for specific sections of track in South Carolina.

Using a laser radar gun provided by the Lexington Police Department, we decided to clock some trains ourselves where they run through some of Columbia's busiest areas.

We found:

* A train in Richland Northeast, at North Brickyard and Two Notch roads, at 10 a.m. Friday, traveling at:

38 mph

* A train in Irmo, at Woodrow Street and Lake Murray Boulevard, at noon Thursday, traveling at:

28 mph

Irmo Mayor John Gibbons said trains often travel through the city at more than 40 mph, so our sample might not be typical.


The State analyzed thousands of main-line track accidents reported by railroads to the Federal Railroad Administration from 1995 through November of last year. The newspaper's study focused on crashes in which top recorded or estimated speeds were at least 45 mph (labeled "high-speed crashes" below) -the estimated speed of the Norfolk Southern train in the Graniteville crash. The key findings:

* Main-line track crashes involving all train types: 10,667

High-speed crashes: 3,048

28 percent of total

* Main-line track crashes involving freight trains: 8,337

High-speed crashes: 2,065

24 percent of total

* Fatal crashes involving all train types: 273

High-speed crashes: 210

76 percent of total

* Fatal freight train crashes: 156

High-speed crashes: 108

69% of total

* Crashes with injuries, all train types: 1,063

High-speed crashes: 543

51 percent of total

* Crashes with injuries, freight trains: 659

High-speed crashes: 314

47 percent of total

* Highway-crossing accidents, all train types: 1,715

High-speed crashes: 1,075

62 percent of total

* Fatal highway-crossing accidents: 221

High-speed crashes: 180

81 percent of total

* Crashes with injuries at highway crossings: 590

High-speed crashes: 400

67 percent of total

SOURCE: Federal Railroad Administration

NOTES: 1) The newspaper's analysis did not examine fatal wrecks on side tracks or in rail yards, where trains typically travel more slowly. 2) The Federal Railroad Administration's database has been criticized for not reflecting all wrecks. Data for South Carolina shows three fatal wrecks at speeds of 45 mph or greater in the past decade.

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