Should trains slow down? ‘Urgent’ safety changes recommended after fatal Cayce crash

NTSB will look into possibility of system-wide issues

The National Transportation and Safety Board is investigating what happened in the collision of a CSX freight train and an Amtrak passenger train in West Columbia.
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The National Transportation and Safety Board is investigating what happened in the collision of a CSX freight train and an Amtrak passenger train in West Columbia.

Eleven days after a fatal train wreck in Cayce, the National Transportation Safety Board issued an “urgent’’ recommendation Thursday that calls on trains to proceed cautiously when moving through areas without signals to warn them of problems ahead.

The NTSB’s recommendation, issued following the Amtrak-CSX crash in South Carolina, focuses on making sure trains have enough time to stop if a railroad track switch is misaligned and to better ensure switches are in the correct positions.

A switch set in the wrong position caused the Amtrak train to run off a main track and onto a side track early on the morning of Feb. 4, the NTSB report said. The Amtrak train then smashed into a parked CSX train. Signals that could have warned of a misaligned track switch were not in operation at the time, the agency said.

The Cayce train wreck killed the conductor and engineer of the Amtrak train and injured 92 others. The Amtrak was enroute between New York and Miami. The crash is considered the worst in South Carolina since a wreck in Graniteville 13 years ago.

Thursday’s four-page NTSB report also reveals new details about what happened the morning of Feb. 4.

Among the reports findings: A CSX conductor on the parked train saw the Amtrak approaching and dashed to the back of the locomotive. When the crash occurred, he was thrown off the train and sustained minor injuries, the safety recommendation report said.

The train’s engineer had gotten off the CSX train before the Amtrak ran onto the side track and was not injured.

The safety recommendation asks the Federal Railroad Administration to issue an emergency order directing trains to operate at restricted train speeds if signals aren’t working, even if railroad crews have reported that a switch ahead is in the correct position. The report defines restricted train speeds as 20 mph or less. Slower speeds allow trains time to brake before a crash.

After a train moves through at substantially slower speeds, the train crew must verify to a dispatcher that the switch was in the right position as the train passed by. Once the switch is verified to be in the right position, later trains can proceed at normal speeds, according to the recommendation.

In the Cayce crash, railroad crews had taken the unusual step of suspending the traffic control signal system while trying to install “positive train control,’’ a system that, ironically, is supposed to stop trains headed for collisions.

The Federal Railroad Administration said it would consider the recommendation.

“Safety is the absolute priority,’’ the administration said in an email. “We will review the safety recommendations NTSB announced this morning. FRA remains committed to keeping the traveling public safe.’’

Disabling signals is not routine, but when that happens, railroad crews rely on dispatchers to say tracks are clear.

The report said CSX employees suspended the traffic control signals system on Feb. 3 and were to work on the system through the next day. The installation of components for the positive control system was partially complete when work crews quit at 7 p.m. on Feb. 3.

“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 board chairman Robert Sumwalt said. “That risk was not mitigated in the Cayce collision. Our recommendation, if implemented, works to mitigate that increased risk.’’

The report says “human decision-making’’ likely played a role in the accident, a finding that NTSB investigators previously have made. Moving the train through Cayce depended on making sure the switch was in the right position, but that did not happen.

“The NTSB concludes that additional measures are needed, such as restricted speed, to ensure safe operations during signal suspensions, especially during the movement of passenger trains, due to the likelihood of harm to the traveling public,’’ the report said.