Thirteen years after a horrifying train wreck killed his son, Steve Seeling awoke Sunday morning to television images of mangled rail cars on a South Carolina track.
Seeling’s son, Christopher, died Jan. 6, 2005, in what many consider the worst train crash in S.C. history, a wreck that devastated tiny Graniteville. Last Sunday, Seeling learned about another fatal crash in the Palmetto State, a smashup that left two Amtrak railroad workers dead and more than 100 passengers injured.
His first thoughts were: Why? How could more people die under similar circumstances?
“It’s an accident that shouldn’t have happened. It’s preventable,” said Seeling, who has advocated for tougher railroad-safety laws since his son’s death. “We just don’t learn our lessons from prior tragedies. It happens over and over.”
Since the 2005 Graniteville crash, a flurry of recommendations has been made to make railroads safer. But in some cases, plans that would prevent trains from derailing have been delayed, watered down or ignored by the federal government, records show.
Recommendations that never have been fully enacted include requiring automatic alert signals on many track switches, requiring slower train speeds in some circumstances and installing a system to automatically stop trains.
The recommendations by the National Transportation Safety Board were intended to prevent track switches from being set in the wrong position and, if they were, to compensate for such mistakes.
‘So little progress has been made’
Like the Graniteville accident, people died in Cayce after a train was diverted off the main track, skidded down a side track and smashed into a parked train. Chris Seeling, an engineer on the Norfolk Southern train, died when a toxic cloud of chlorine was released from the impact. In both the Graniteville and Cayce wrecks, improperly aligned switches have been blamed for diverting trains off the main railroad track.
That is a concern across the country and in South Carolina, where switches serve 2,600 miles of railway. Every day, CSX, Amtrak and Norfolk Southern send trains through small communities like Graniteville, midsized towns such as Cayce and larger cities like Columbia.
These trains carry everything from passengers bound for distant places to tanker cars loaded with toxic chemicals. Disasters can occur when track switches — mechanical devices used to move trains from one track to another — divert rapidly moving trains off of main lines into rail yards.
Since Graniteville, the most talked about change never fully made is a system that would slow or halt trains when danger lies ahead, such as misaligned switches or obstructions in the railway. That system, known as positive train control, has been installed only in selected areas.
Positive train control is not known to be in use in South Carolina. However, state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, introduced a bill Wednesday to fine railroads that don’t install it.
Deborah Hersman, a former NTSB chairwoman who now is head of the National Safety Council, said installing the positive train control system has been difficult. Railroad companies have been reluctant to install the system because they say it is expensive.
“It’s heartbreaking that so little progress has been made since Graniteville,’’ said Hersman, who assisted with the Graniteville accident investigation. “This was virtually the same accident (in Cayce), and both could have been prevented by positive train control.”
Critic: ‘Safety is not a big issue’
Positive train control was approved by Congress in 2008 and formally unveiled two years later. The system was supposed to be installed three years ago on all major rail lines used to transport people or hazardous chemicals. That is about 60,000 miles of the country’s more than 140,000 miles of mainline track, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.
Positive train control relies on GPS, wireless radio and computers to monitor train positions. It is supposed to compensate for human errors, like the one the NTSB said apparently led to the switch misalignment Sunday in Lexington County.
Major rail lines say they are working to install the system, but many have pushed to delay fully operating it until the end of this year and possibly 2020.
The NTSB said this week that signal lights were not working at the site of the Cayce crash because CSX was preparing for the installation of positive train control.
CSX issued a statement saying the railroad “is on track” to meet positive train control requirements but declined to say whether any segments of its S.C. operations have the controls.
Ken Heathington, a railroad consultant who studies accidents, said railroads “aren’t interested in changing anything” significant.
“Safety is not a big issue” to the companies, said Heathington, a Tennessee resident who has testified as an expert witness in train lawsuits.
Overall, freight railroads have installed the positive train control system on 56 percent of the route miles where is required, according to the Association of American Railroads. Parts of the northeastern U.S. have positive train control for Amtrak-owned lines. But in South Carolina, freight companies own the tracks and the controls are not fully operational, the Associated Press reported.
CSX, which operates throughout the eastern U.S., has spent more than $1.2 billion on positive train control systems and equipped most of its locomotives with the technology, records show. But Federal Railroad Administration records show less than 40 percent of the company’s track segments are equipped.
Norfolk Southern, the other major freight railroad that operates in South Carolina, has equipped about 50 percent of its track miles and 71 percent of its locomotives with positive train control technology, according to the Railroad Administration. The company did not say Wednesday whether any parts of its S.C. railways are equipped with positive train control.
‘Birthdays and holidays ... are still difficult’
While positive train control is absent in many areas, other, less publicized recommendations also have not been made after encountering opposition from the railroads, NTSB records show.
Those include a proposal requiring railroads to install automatic devices, such as lights, on track switches in “dark territories,” or areas without signal lights. That would ensure railroad crews don’t forget to return the switches to the correct positions, as they did in Graniteville and are suspected of doing in Cayce, before leaving work for the night.
The National Transportation Safety Board recommended these changes in response to the Graniteville train wreck that killed Chris Seeling and eight others early on the morning of Jan. 6, 2005. Crew members forgot to flip the switch so that traffic coming down the main track would not be diverted to the side track, investigators concluded.
If a flashing strobe light had been atop the Graniteville switch that morning, the crew likely would have seen it and put the switch in the correct position, according to the NTSB’s Dec. 12, 2005, report and recommendations.
But NTSB records show the proposal never was acted on by the Federal Railroad Administration.
NTSB records also show that the agency, which recommends safety improvements for railroads and airlines, proposed the Federal Railroad Administration require trains to slow down in some areas that did not have indicator lights on track switches.
The agency recommended trains slow to speeds that would allow crews time to stop safely if switches were misaligned, like in Graniteville and Cayce. The recommendation generally would apply in less populated areas, records show. NTSB records show the agency closed its push for slower speeds after getting an “unacceptable” response from the Railroad Administration.
Officials with the Railroad Administration did not respond this week to questions about the Graniteville recommendations.
Seeling, who has never shaken the death of his son, said something has to change. Once a family loses a loved one in a train wreck, the pain lasts forever, said the 71-year-old Kansas resident.
“We think about Chris all the time,” Seeling said. “We are Christians and we know where he is (in Heaven). But we miss him.
“Birthdays and holidays, they are still difficult.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.