At least two people were killed and more than 100 are hurt after n Amtrak passenger train collided with a freight train in South Carolina early Sunday morning.
Three fatal crashes of Amtrak trains in as many months are raising serious concerns about rail safety nationwide.
Sunday’s deadly crash of a Miami-bound Amtrak train into the back of a CSX freight train in South Carolina is the second fatal crash in a week. A chartered train for Republican members of Congress heading to a retreat collided with a garbage truck Wednesday in rural Virginia, killing the truck driver. Investigators are still examining what caused a Dec. 18 derailment on an overpass between Seattle and Portland, Ore., killing three.
Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson acknowledged the safety concerns Sunday and said he hoped to instill a culture similar to that of airlines: “Amtrak is fully committed and values safety as its highest priority.”
Authorities say Sunday’s crash happened when the southbound passenger train from New York somehow got switched from the main track onto a siding where it rear-ended parked freight cars, killing the train’s engineer and conductor. The Amtrak train at the time was passing through an area owned and controlled by CSX.
“It appears to me CSX was on the track it was supposed to be on. And that appeared to be a loading track,” South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said at a news conference. “They weren’t supposed to be meeting like that, clearly. … It appears that Amtrak was on the wrong track.”
More: Amtrak train on wrong track collides with freight train; 2 dead, 116 injured
The crash is the latest in a series of high-profile incidents involving passenger trains, including at least three people killed by high-speed Brightline trains in Florida since that service began testing last year and launched in January.
While all three of Amtrak’s most recent crashes appear to have different causes, some critics are calling for changes to the organization’s approach to safety.
“The company needs to take bold action, possibly even pause operations, to show that they’re taking these failures seriously,” Brian Fielkow, author of the book Leading People Safely, which argues that companies can ultimately save money by operating safely.
Amtrak remains popular with riders and lawmakers from both rural and urban areas. More than 31 million riders last year reached more than 500 destinations in 46 states and three Canadian provinces, the company said.
Amtrak’s trains along the Northeast corridor are its busiest, but the company also serves dozens of small towns across the West, including transporting tens of thousands of Boy Scouts annually to the Philmont Scout Ranch in northern New Mexico.
More: Amtrak accidents hurt safety reputation, but railroad remains popular with Congress, riders
More: After Brightline high-speed rail deaths, Florida lawmakers call for more safety rules
Still, Amtrak has been slowly attracting more riders and is under the gun. President Trump has proposed slashing Amtrak’s annual subsidy and forcing it to cut unprofitable long-haul trains in favor of services like the Acela in New York, Boston and Washington, D.C.
Amtrak crashes in addition to the two this past week:
• Dec. 18: A train traveling 80 mph entered a 30-mph curve and derailed, sending cars plunging off a bridge onto Interstate 5 below on the Cascades route between Seattle and Portland, Ore..
• April 3, 2016: A train going 99 mph near Philadelphia slammed into a backhoe on the track, killing two workmen and injuring 39 passengers. Investigators said a series of safety lapses caused the collision.
• May 12, 2015: A train traveling 106 mph into a 50-mph curve in Philadelphia derailed, killing eight passengers and injuring hundreds. Investigators ruled the engineer lost awareness of where he was on the route.
Railroad advocates point out that trains remain far safer than cars, which killed 37,000 people last year across the country. Jim Mathews, president and CEO of the non-profit Rail Passengers Association, pointed out that in the vast majority of train crashes, a vehicle or person on the tracks was at fault, even though Amtrak or another railroad gets blamed.
In the U.S., a person or vehicle gets hit by a train every three hours, accounting for 96% of rail fatalities, according to the Rail Passengers Association, which has been pushing Congress to boost safety funding.
“It’s easy, when these things happen, to lose perspective. But despite these incidents, it really does remain a very safe way to travel,” Mathews said. “The facts are that Amtrak’s trains don’t crash a lot, and people don’t die a lot in those crashes.”
The National Transportation Safety Board was at Sunday’s crash site and will investigate the cause of the wreck. Train safety expert Richard Beall said the cause is likely one of three things: a track problem, a fault with the train itself or a crew error. Most passenger trains, he said, are run by a single engineer in the locomotive working a shift that could be as long as 12 hours.
Beall, a longtime engineer who retired last summer, said railroads have invested significantly in improving crossings and signals. They are also working to adopt technology mandated by Congress called Positive Train Control, which experts say would reduce crashes by tracking and controlling a train’s location and speed.
“They can’t get it to work,” Beall said.
Beall said the risk of crew fatigue is very real, especially at the time of Sunday’s collision, about 2:35 a.m.
“I’ve run trains for 47 years. That’s a tough time of the morning,” Beall said. “You’re out there in the dark, looking out at two shiny rails in the headlight. You can get hypnotized by what’s in front of you.”
Contributing: Tim Smith, The Greenville (S.C.) News; Oren Dorell, USA TODAY
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