Fatal Rail Collision Reignites Debate on Operations Safety

By Nathaniel Valyo, National News Writer

An Amtrak train collided with a stationary CSX freight train in the early morning of Sunday, February 4, near Columbia, South Carolina, leaving two people dead and 116 injured.

“It appears that the Amtrak was on the wrong track,” said South Carolina governor Henry McMaster in a press conference. The Amtrak 91 train was supposed to be on the main line, but it was being directed towards tracks to the east in the direction of the parked CSX freight train. The train departed from Penn Station in New York and was headed for Miami, Florida.

“The track on which the Amtrak train was originally traveling en route to Miami was switched manually, causing the train to shift towards the eastern tracks in the direction of the parked CSX train”, according to National Transportation Safety Board chair Robert Sumwalt at a press conference following the crash. “Key to this investigation is learning why that switch was lined that way because the expectation is the Amtrak would be cleared and would be operating straight down [the main line].” The train was estimated to have been travelling at 59 miles per hour during the time of the crash.

According to Amtrak president and chief executive officer Richard Anderson, CSX is in control of the area where the crash occurred. “They are in complete control of the track, the signaling, the switching – and, in fact, our train engineers and conductors, as we move over their railroad, are directed and in regular contact with the dispatch center at CSX,” he said. Later adding, “Normally the train is directed by the dispatcher and the dispatcher in this case was CSX.”

CSX responded to the crash in a statement on Twitter, saying, “Our sincere condolences go out to the families of the two individuals who passed away following the tragic events that took place in Cayce, South Carolina this morning. We remain focused on providing assistance and support to those impacted by today’s accident.” The two people who passed away were the train conductor himself and an engineer on board the Amtrak train.

“People were screaming. I thought I was going to die. I didn’t think I was going to survive that,” said Alexandra Delgado, a passenger on board from Tampa, Florida. “Don’t ask me to get on another train… I’m never going to get on a train,” she claimed.

The collision is Amtrak’s third fatal crash since mid-December. Just five days prior, an Amtrak train with Republican members of Congress on board crashed into a garbage truck in western Virginia, killing one and leaving several others injured. On December 18, an Amtrak train derailed in Washington, leaving five dead. Mark V. Rosenker, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, suggested that there is a “lack of safety culture” at Amtrak given the recent incidents. “Accidents are never one thing,” he said. “They’re a chain of events which come together, creating a catastrophic result.”

Governor McMaster said the National Transportation Safety Board sent a crew to investigate the crash. The FBI and the South Carolina state police assisted in the investigation as well. Additionally, around 5,000 gallons of fuel on board were spilled, and the crews sent to investigate the scene worked on containing the spill. Passengers were escorted to a nearby elementary school where a makeshift shelter had been formed.

“It is important to understand the factors that contributed to this tragic accident and how all stakeholders can ensure a safe and reliable rail system going forward,” the U.S. Department of Transportation was quoted as saying. Given the recent record of safety violations, rail transportation firm should work to make passenger safety a top priority.

 

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, February 13th print edition.

Contact Nathaniel at

nathaniel.valyo@student.shu.edu

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