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1 year after fatal SC train crash, life-saving tech activated. Did it take too long?

2 dead and more than 100 wounded: What happened during the Cayce train collision

Watch this timeline of the events following the deadly train crash in Cayce, South Carolina on February 4, 2018.
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Watch this timeline of the events following the deadly train crash in Cayce, South Carolina on February 4, 2018.

A year ago this week, an Amtrak passenger train slammed into a stopped engine in Cayce, leaving a set of derailed passenger cars bent into a V shape, a smashed Amtrak conductor’s car laying on its side, and a totally demolished engine that looked like it had been run over. Two people were killed and nearly 100 were injured.

A top National Transportation Safety Board official called the wreckage “catastrophic,” The State reported.

“It’s a horrible thing to see to understand the force that is involved,” Gov. Henry McMaster said after seeing the Feb. 4 wreck.

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South Carolina governor Henry McMaster speaks to the media after touring the scene of an Amtrak train accident in Cayce, South Carolina, Sunday, Feb. 4, 2018. At least two were killed and dozens injured. (Tim Dominick/The State) Tim Dominick The State

A year later, new equipment, including technology that could have prevented the accident, has been installed and is operating on all major railroad tracks in South Carolina, according to CSX and Norfolk Southern, the two main companies that operate tracks in the state. What’s more, Amtrak says the technology required for its trains to interact with the new railroad technology is operating on the trains it sends through the state.

“It has moved in the right direction and the system is absolutely needed,” said Dimitris Rizos, an associate professor of engineering and coordinator of the railway engineering program at the University of South Carolina.

An investigation blamed the morning accident in Cayce on a switch left in the wrong position, which caused the Amtrak train to reroute onto a side track, where two CSX engines sat while railroad crews worked, The State reported. A signal that would have warned the moving train’s operators of the out-place-switch was also turned off by the crew working the railroad.

Ironically, the crew was installing components of Positive Train Control, or PTC, a system that is meant to automatically slow or brake trains in unsafe situations.

Killed in the crash were two Amtrak employees: engineer Michael Kempf, 54, of Savannah, Ga., and conductor Michael Cella, 36, of Orange Park, Fla.

“A fully operational positive train control system could have avoided this accident,” said Robert Sumwalt of Columbia, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, on the day of the wreck. “That is what it is designed to do.”

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NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt details the Amtrak train’s path before the collision during a 2018 press conference at the South Carolina Emergency Management Division on Sunday. Gavin McIntyre gmcintyre@thestate.com

A federal law passed in 2008 required the system to be in place by 2015. But the deadline established by the national Rail Safety Improvement Act was changed by Congress in October 2015 to require installation by Dec. 31 2018. An extension to 2020 was granted to railroad companies that met certain criteria at the end of 2018.

In South Carolina, the system is installed in all trains and rails operated by CSX and Norfolk Southern in the state, the companies reported.

PTC relies on GPS, wireless radio and computers to monitor train positions and railroad conditions, The State reported in 2018. It is supposed to compensate for human errors, like the one the NTSB said apparently led to the switch misalignment in Cayce.

“PTC implementation is a very complex undertaking, and we are proud of the significant progress our dedicated employees have made,” CSX said in a statement.

Norfolk Southern spokesperson Susan Terpay said nearly 74 percent of the company’s nationwide trains and tracks that are required to have PTC are already operating the system.

But installing the system on tracks is just one part of the complicated process. PTC technology on the tracks must be compatible to what’s in the trains. Matching the different technologies has been “an enormous challenge,” according to Jeff Young, an expert on the new systems who worked for Union Pacific Railroad for nearly 40 years and is a consultant for the Association of American Railroads.

Ensuring compatibility is a complicated task that involves testing different companies’ trains over every mile of railroad. Young compared it to “...mapping all of the interstates and state highways across the country and validating the data in the field for every speed sign, milepost sign, traffic signal, exit ramp and other roadway features.”

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An aerial view of the site of an early morning train crash Sunday, Feb. 4, 2018 between an Amtrak train, bottom right, and a CSX freight train, top left, in Cayce, SC. The Amtrak passenger train slammed into a freight train in the early morning darkness Sunday, killing at least two Amtrak crew members and injuring more than 110 people, authorities said. Jeff Blake AP

In South Carolina, Amtrak trains use Norfolk Southern and CSX tracks. When the Cayce wreck occurred, the Amtrak train was traveling on CSX tracks.

An Amtrak spokesperson confirmed that its trains are operating with PTC on CSX rails in South Carolina. Nationwide, nearly 16,000 miles of track used by Amtrak has the PTC system, Kimberly Woods of Amtrak said.

Terpay of Norfolk Southern said Amtrak is running with the PTC technology on Norfolk Southern’s tracks in South Carolina.

Nationwide, the major railroads, including CSX and Norfolk Southern, are “meeting all the marks” towards having the PTC system fully working by 2020, said Jessica Kahanek, a spokesperson for the Association of American Railroads, an industry trade and lobbying group.

The railroad industry has spent $10.5 billion on installing PTC, according to the association. The system will cost hundreds of millions to maintain each year, the group reported.

Beyond PTC, CSX said that in 2018 it took further steps to enhance safety such as hiring a new chief safety officer, redesigning safety training, strengthening rules and testing and making it easier for employees to report safety issues.

“We are beginning to see positive results from our efforts,” with fewer personal injuries and accident rates, CSX said. “We recognize there is always more work to be done and we’re committed to building on our progress,” CSX said.

Immediately after the 2018 train crash, the Federal Railroad Administration enacted an emergency order to reduce train speeds in areas where switches and signals may be an issue, said Tom Allen with S.C. Office of Regulatory Staff. Railroad companies reviewed policies and took measures to ensure switch and signal safety.

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Michael Cella was an Amtrak conductor who died in the February 2018 Cayce train collision. Submitted

Whether the new system could have been in place any earlier is hard to say, according Rizos, the engineering professor at USC.

“It’s like building a whole new highway system from scratch. It’s a huge investment and going to take time,” Rizos said “It could have been done faster maybe, but it’s not unreasonable for such an effort to take some time.”

But the safety measures come too late for Howard Spier, a personal injury attorney and 35-year veteran of railroad litigation. Spier represented Christine Cella, widow of the conductor who died in the 2018 crash, in a wrongful death suit against CSX and Amtrak that came down hard on the companies, particularly CSX, for negligence and safety failures. Cella’s suit was settled, Spier said, but that’s little compensation.

“Did we not learn a lesson ... from so many other crashes and collisions?” Spier said. “Did anybody else have to die because the railroads said they didn’t have the money for PTC, did the FRA have to let them off the hook (on deadlines)?”

Spier questions why PTC wasn’t installed years ago if the intent was to save lives as companies say the technology will do.

“Why any lives had to be lost is a black mark on rail safety in this country,” Spier said.

In January 2005, a train derailment in Graniteville, SC and subsequent chlorine leak from one of the tankers killed 9 and evacuated nearly 5,400 residents.

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David Travis Bland won the South Carolina Press Association’s 2017 Judson Chapman Award for community journalism. As The State’s crime, police and public safety reporter, he strives to inform communities about crimes that affect them and give deeper insight into victims, the accused and law enforcement. He studied history with a focus on the American South at the University of South Carolina.

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