Fatal Amtrak South Carolina Crash Renews Call for Positive Train Control

Statement from Transportation Attorney Mary Schiavo

On February 4, 2018 at approximately 2:35 a.m., Amtrak passenger train 91, known as the Silver Star, crashed into a CSX freight train in Cayce, South Carolina, a suburb of Columbia, South Carolina. There were 147 people aboard.  At the time of this writing, two Amtrak employees have died with another in critical condition. As many as 116 were taken to area hospitals. Our thoughts and condolences are with the families of those who lost their lives and we wish a speedy recovery for all who were injured or involved in the crash. 

Several thousand gallons of fuel spilled at the crash site but cleanup is underway. There are no reports of other chemical leaks. In January 2005, a train crash in Graniteville, South Carolina, released deadly chlorine gas killing and injuring many residents of that SC community and causing widespread property damages. Motley Rice was one of the leaders in the investigation and litigation of that deadly crash.

The Amtrak train is believed to have collided with a CSX freight train. The investigators from the NTSB are traveling to South Carolina to begin their investigation. They will quickly look to the train’s onboard camera and the train’s black box – the data recorder that will tell the investigators the speed of the train, any braking action or lack thereof, signaling, and other important data about the performance of the train and the people controlling the train. The weather conditions overnight near the location of the crash were rainy and visibility at the time of the crash may be an issue. Passengers from the train stated they were awakened by the crash, but did not as of yet publicly report feeling any braking before impact. Investigators will want to know why.

Marlon Kimpson, who is also an attorney with me here at Motley Rice, tweeted that he is offering prayers for all affected by this tragedy. Marlon also noted that there is tremendous support available from all state and local emergency services. He told me that South Carolina emergency teams were quick to arrive; the 911 call was received at 2:34 a.m., law enforcement arrived at 2:39 a.m. and EMS at 2:40 a.m. “There are 3 major hospitals, a medical school, a Veterans’ Administration major trauma center and Fort Jackson all within a few miles of the crash site.”  I worked with Kimpson on the Graniteville train crash and echo his sentiment emphasizing the importance of a fast local response to aid the inured, to push for implementation of overdue safety measures and to seek justice for the injured and the families of those killed.  

As the former Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Transportation and former U.S.-Japan Fellow at Japan Rail, I know this crash will again call into question the failure of the nation’s rail providers to have met the original deadlines established by Congress in 2008 to require a system called Positive Train Control (PTC) on approximately 60,000 miles of U.S. rail tracks. PTC is a computerized train and track monitoring system that will slow and stop a train if there are obstructions on the track such as another train or work crews, or if the train is exceeding the speed limits. If the rail companies and train engineers are alert and properly performing their jobs, PTC should rarely be needed—trains will not exceed the track and weather conditions or speed limits, work crews will not be working on rail lines when in use and never will two trains be in conflict on the same track. But, with three Amtrak crashes in as many months, PTC is obviously needed and can be lifesaving.

CSX, the owner of the freight train reportedly hit by Amtrak and the owner of the tracks on which the collision occurred, was among railroads asking for extensions of PTC requirements which have been extended through 2018 with potential for extensions through 2020. The reasons cited for the extension by most railroad companies is usually the cost to apply PTC to 60,000 miles of track and 20,000 locomotives in use in the U.S. According to the CSX website, it must install PTC on 15,000 of its 16,000 miles of track – 1,800 miles of which are in South Carolina. CSX has invested $1.2 billion in PTC but has not completed installation. Amtrak has outfitted the Northeastern Corridor and its trains with PTC, but Train 91 must make much of its journey on non-Amtrak tracks.

The U.S. in running passenger and freight trains on the same tracks is unlike many European countries. Furthermore, Japan which has dedicated tracks including track for the Shikansen (or bullet trains) which have a top speed of 200 MPH, and which never intersect with surface road vehicle traffic. The bullet train dedicated tracks eliminated the possibility of a train hitting a vehicle stalled on the  tracks—the plight of the Amtrak train which last week in Virginia struck a garbage truck while transporting Members of Congress to the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia.  With the rise in availability, frequency, and safety of commercial passenger service aviation, rail tracks and lines were abandoned throughout out the latter half of the last century. The delays occasioned by the airlines’ spoke and hub systems, overbooking and the heightened security screening requirements due to world terrorism, have led many to question the wisdom of passenger rail abandonment. Regardless of delays and hassle, the safety of scheduled passenger airlines has come a long way. Last year scheduled commercial air service beat passenger rail’s record at least as far as passenger deaths are concerned. Scheduled U.S. passenger air travel had no deaths, a record passenger rail did not match.