Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak derailments’

NTSB Releases More Info on Silver Star Crash

March 1, 2018

The National Transportation Safety Board on Wednesday released a preliminary report on Feb. 4 head-on collision between Amtrak’s southbound Silver Star and a CSX auto rack train in South Carolina that provides additional details about the crash that caused an estimated $25 million in damage and claimed the lives of two Amtrak crew members. At least 92 passengers and crew members aboard Amtrak No. 91 were injured.

The report reviews the CSX dispatching system at the time of the accident and reveals how two CSX crew members of the parked auto rack train that Amtrak struck managed to escape injury.

The report said the CSX engineer had gotten off his train before the Silver Star entered the siding due to a misaligned switch. He was able to run to safety.

The CSX conductor was thrown off the locomotive of his train by the impact of the collision and suffered minor injuries.

The three-page NTSB report does not seek to assess blame for the accident, but reiterates earlier released information that a misaligned switch led to the collision.

A more detailed report that states a probable cause along with recommendations will be issued several months later.

In the meantime, the NTSB has recommended that the Federal Railroad Administration issue an emergency order providing instructions for instances in which a signal system has been turned off and a switch has been reported as relined for a main track.

Other information contained in the preliminary NTSB report includes:

Amtrak Train No. 91 reached a top speed of 57 mph after leaving its station stop in nearby Columbia, South Carolina. This was below the 59 mph limit allowed under signal suspension rules.

Information taken from the Amtrak locomotive’s event recorder indicated that before it stopped recording the engineer had activated the locomotive horn for three seconds and brake pipe pressure began decreasing two seconds later.

The engineer then moved the throttle from full throttle to idle as the train slowed to 54 mph.

A second later, the train’s emergency brakes were applied, by which time its speed had fallen to 53 mph.

The recording ended as the air brakes were approaching maximum braking effort and train speed was 50 mph.

The forward-facing video camera of the Amtrak P42DC was recovered from the wreckage and sent to the NTSB laboratory in Washington for analysis.

It stopped recording shortly before the collision, but NTSB engineers are attempting forensic efforts to recover further information.

Investigators have also recovered the forward-facing video camera and event recorder of the lead CSX locomotive.

The engineer and conductor of the Amtrak train died as a result of the collision and at least 92 passengers and crew members of the Amtrak train were transported to local medical facilities.

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The Politics of PTC

February 21, 2018

Much has been said during the past two months about positive train control, but one of the more interesting comments came from Bennett Levin, the owner of a pair of E8A locomotives painted in the livery of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Levin told Trains magazine that he couldn’t afford the six-figure cost per unit to outfit his locomotives with a PTC device. Instead, he’ll probably sideline them.

Referring to a 2008 federal law that mandates PTC on many railroad routes, Levin described the requirement as “unfortunate and untimely” and suggested the requirement might not exist had a Metrolink commuter train engineer been doing his job instead of texting on his cell phone in the minutes before his train ran past a red signal and crashed head-on with a Union Pacific freight train in Los Angeles, an incident that left 25 dead.

Levin’s comments probably reflect the thinking of others in the railroad industry but it would not be good public relations, let alone good politics, for them to make similar comments.

The Association of American Railroads recently held a press briefing in which it fired an opening salvo on behalf of railroads likely to ask the Federal Railroad Administration for an extension of time to meet the PTC mandate.

The AAR expressed confidence that U.S. railroads will comply with the PTC deadline of
Dec. 31, but an AAR official later said it won’t be known until summer which railroads might seek an extension of time to install PTC.

Those requests for more time might not sit well with some at the FRA, the U.S. Department of Transportation or Congress.

The railroad trade group also was laying the groundwork for future fights concerning PTC by expressing concern that the FRA will micromanage PTC systems once they are in place and operating.

That concern is not without merit given the statements that have been coming virtually nonstop from the National Transportation Safety Board and Congress in the wake of three high profile accidents since December involving Amtrak trains that resulted in fatalities.

In two of those, the NTSB has said that had PTC been operating at the time, the accident likely would have been avoided.

Given what we know about the facts of those three Amtrak collisions, human error was at the root of all of them. The implication is that in at least two of those accidents technology could have overcome human foibles.

Perhaps, but the AAR also made the point during that news conference that PTC is not the magic bullet for rail safety that many are making it out to be. AAR Senior Vice President for Safety and Operations Mike Rush cited a 2005 study that found only 4 percent of mainline accidents could have been prevented by PTC.

Of course safety is paramount advocates will counter that one life lost is one too many.

It is hard to argue against that, yet far more people lose their lives in highway accidents than are killed in railroad accidents and we don’t see a movement to install some form of PTC on highways, the move toward self-driving vehicles notwithstanding.

Most highway fatalities don’t make the national news, only the local news and even then they might not get that much attention, let alone the type of lasting attention needed to prompt policy makers into action.

Society has become numbed by the high number of road fatalities, but expects the government to do something about accidents involving public transportation.

Make no mistake about it. Implementation of PTC is as much a political issue as it is a safety issue.

People who own railroad companies and, for that matter, airline companies, trucking companies, water transportation companies, bus companies, et. al, don’t like being told how to run their business. They don’t like being pushed around by government regulators and policy makers.

During the AAR news conference, Rush tried to make the case that PTC would likely have come about anyway without the government mandate.

He said the industry has spent decades researching PTC and conducted trials, one of which ended in failure.

But all of that got short circuited by the 2008 government mandate. Since then, the railroad industry has invested $10 billion in PTC and figures to spend millions if not billions more in maintaining it.

We’ll never know what the railroad industry would have come up with had it been left to its own devices in developing PTC. Nor will we ever know how many railroads would have installed PTC voluntarily on how much of their networks.

What we do know is that so long as public transportation conveyances continue to have accidents that leave people dead, there will continue to be government regulators and private citizen lobby groups trying to push the transportation industry around by telling them what to do to make travel safer.

Amtrak Pays Victims of its Accidents Even if the Host Railroad is at Fault or Negligent in its Cause

February 12, 2018

Based on information released by the National Transportation Safety Board, the cause of the collision in South Carolina that left two Amtrak crew members dead seems pretty straightforward.

A switch had been left open, thus routing the southbound Silver Star into a head-on crash with a parked CSX auto rack train.

That might seem to be the fault of a CSX employee although it’s possible the switch could have been tampered with by someone else.

The NTSB is expected to release its report on the cause of the accident more than year from now.

Whatever the cause of the accident, Amtrak likely will wind up paying the money that will go to those filing lawsuits in the wake of the crash.

It won’t matter if CSX is found to have sole responsibility for the accident, Amtrak likely will pay the claims.

The accident on Feb. 4 in Cayce, South Carolina, has trained the spotlight again on a little-known fact about Amtrak’s relationships with its host railroads.

Agreements between the passenger carrier and its host railroads leave Amtrak responsible for paying the legal claims that stem from accidents.

The exact language of those contracts has been kept secret at the insistence of the railroads and Amtrak, say lawyers who have been involved in legal proceedings involving Amtrak and a host railroad.

Amtrak has track use contracts with 30 railroads and all of them are “no fault” agreements.

As explained by an Amtrak executive in a September 2017 seminar hosted by the Federal Highway Administration, that means Amtrak takes full responsibility for its property and passengers and the injuries of anyone hit by a train.

A host railroad is only responsible for its property and employees.

Amtrak manager Jim Blair said at the seminar that this was “a good way for Amtrak and the host partners to work together to get things resolved quickly and not fight over issues of responsibility.”

It doesn’t matter if the host railroad was negligent in causing the crash.

It wasn’t always that way, but things changed after a 1987 crash on the Northeast Corridor at Chase, Maryland, when Amtrak’s New York-bound Colonial struck a Conrail light power move that had run a stop signal.

Sixteen died in the crash. During the investigation, authorities learned that the Conrail engineer was under the influence of marijuana at the time.

Although Conrail paid damages from the resulting lawsuits, the railroad industry began pushing for Amtrak to assume liability for damage claims resulting from accidents, even if the host railroad was at fault for the cause of the accident.

A former member of the Amtrak board of directors said that following the Chase crash, Amtrak faced “a lot of threats from the other railroads.”

The former board member spoke with the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the company’s internal legal discussions are supposed to remain confidential and he doesn’t want to harm his own business relationships by airing a contentious issue.

The Amtrak board member said management gave in to the railroad industry demands because it felt it couldn’t afford to pick a fight.

“The law says that Amtrak is guaranteed access, but it’s up to the goodwill of the railroad as to whether they’ll put you ahead or behind a long freight train,” he said.

The practice of Amtrak paying damages for accidents involving its trains was revealed in a 2004 New York Times series on railroad grade crossing safety.

Following that disclosure, the U.S. Surface Transportation Board ruled that a railroad “cannot be indemnified for its own gross negligence, recklessness, willful or wanton misconduct,” said a 2010 letter by then-Surface Transportation Board chairman Dan Elliott to members of Congress.

That ruling gives Amtrak grounds to pursue gross negligence claims against freight railroads. However, Amtrak has declined to do so.

“If Amtrak felt that if they didn’t want to pay, they’d have to litigate it,” said Elliott, now an attorney at the law firm of Conner & Winters.

The Associated Press reported in the wake of the Cayce crash that it was unable to find any case in which Amtrak pursued a claim against a freight railroad since the Chase incident.

AP said it asked Amtrak, CSX and the Association of American Railroads to identify any example within the last decade of a railroad contributing to a settlement or judgment in a passenger rail accident that occurred on its track. However, none would provide such an example.

Robert L. Potrroff is a member of a Kansas law firm that specializes in railroad accident litigation, told the AP that even in a case in which establishing gross negligence by a freight railroad is possible he has never seen any indication that the railroad and Amtrak are at odds.

“You’ll frequently see Amtrak hire the same lawyers the freight railroads use,” he said.

Another attorney, Ron Goldman, who has represented passenger rail accident victims, said he has long been curious whether it was Amtrak or freight railroads that ended up paying for settlements and judgments.

“The question of how they share that liability is cloaked in secrecy,” he said. “The money is coming from Amtrak when our clients get the check.”

Pottroff said he has long thought that Amtrak should fight its contract railroads on liability matters because it would make safety a larger financial consideration for them. He also said there is a fairness issue at stake.

Following the Chase crash, a federal judge ruled that forcing Amtrak to take financial responsibility for “reckless, wanton, willful, or grossly negligent acts by Conrail” was contrary to good public policy.

Pontroff is representing clients who have sued Amtrak and CSX following last week’s South Carolina crash, but doesn’t expect CSX to pay any settlements or judgments.

“Amtrak has a beautiful defense — the freight railroad is in control of all [of] the infrastructure,” he said. “[But] Amtrak always pays.”

The railroad industry contends that it has ample incentive to keep tracks safe for employees, customers and investors.

“Our goal remains zero accidents,” said CSX spokesman Bryan Tucker in a statement to the Associated Press.

Signal System Had Been Turned Off to Install PTC

February 6, 2018

Some news accounts of the head-on collision between an Amtrak train and a CSX freight train in South Carolina early Sunday morning mentioned that the signal system in place on the line had been turned off.

There was a reason for that. CSX crews were working to cut in a positive train control system on the route, the same system that National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt said might have prevented the crash.

During a news conference on Monday afternoon, Sumwalt said Amtrak’s southbound Silver Star was operating with track warrants in temporarily dark territory.  See a post below for an account of the final seconds before the crash.

Crews for Amtrak and CSX were in verbal contact with the dispatcher controlling that stretch of track where the work was being performed, which is the Columbia Subdivision of the Florence Division.

Sumwalt said NTSB investigators have thus far not found any problems with the track where the collision occurred in Cayce, South Carolina.

Earlier NTSB news briefings said that a switch had been left aligned to route Amtrak train No. 91 into the path of the CSX auto rack train, which was sitting on a siding without a crew onboard.

The collision, which destroyed Amtrak P42DC No. 47 and CSX AC44CW Nos. 130 resulted in an Amtrak engineer and conductor being killed.

Sumwalt said the NTSB inquiry will be broader than the mechanics of how the crash occurred.

“It is very important that we look at each of these incidents in isolation to determine if there are systemic issues,” Sumwalt, making reference to other incidents involving Amtrak in recent months. “Last Wednesday, it was a garbage truck that was on the track. We aren’t sure what happened here [and] why that switch was lined for the siding. We do look at safety culture issues and we did a report in October.”

That report, which reviewed an April 2016 incident in the Northeast Corridor in Pennsylvania that left two Amtrak maintenance of way workers dead, was critical of Amtrak’s lack of an effective safety culture.

NTSB Says Amtrak Engineer Applied Brakes, Sounded Horn Before Collision With CSX Train

February 5, 2018

The National Transportation Safety Board said on Monday afternoon that the engineer of Amtrak’s southbound Silver Star had applied the train brakes seconds before it struck a parked CSX freight train in a siding in Cayce, South Carolina.

The engineer also sounded his locomotive’s horn for three seconds.

NTSB investigators have said that a misaligned switch routed Amtrak train No. 91 into the path of the CSX train, which did not have a crew aboard at the time of the collision early Sunday  morning.

Chairman Robert Sumwalt said investigators found the data event recorders of Amtrak P42DC No. 47 undamaged in the wreckage.

The Amtrak engineer and an Amtrak conductor in the cab of the locomotive were killed in the crash, which also left 116 people aboard the train injured.

Sumwalt said the data showed that seven seconds before impact, the locomotive horn sounded for three seconds. The train was traveling at 56 miles per hour at that point, which was slightly slower than the 59 mph top speed allowed at that location.

Five seconds before impact, the brake pipe pressure began decreasing, indicating that the train brakes were being applied. The engineer had also moved the throttle from full to idle, which dropped the train’s speed to 54 miles an hour.

Three seconds before the collision, the emergency brakes were applied.

Sumwalt said the force of the collision moved the lead CSX locomotive 15 feet back from its location.

The switch that is the focus of the investigation was described as a hand-thrown switch that was found to have been locked into position to route a train from a mainline track into a siding.

The CSX train was sitting stationary 659 feet from the switch. Sumwalt indicated that aligning the switch for a straight move on the main would have been the responsibility of a CSX employee.

“We want to understand why that was the case,” Sumwalt said of why the switch was aligned as it was.

He said investigators found no mechanical problems with the switch.

Thus far, NTSB personnel have interviewed the CSX engineer, conductor, dispatcher, and a trainmaster. They plan to interview the surviving Amtrak crew members on Tuesday.

Earlier reports indicated that the signal system in the area of the crash was in the process of being upgraded and that trains were operating under track warrants issued by the dispatcher.

Sumwalt declined to reveal what the CSX employees said during the interviews.

He also declined to assess any blame. “I’m confident that our investigators will be able to piece this back together,” Sumwalt said.

2 Dead, 110 Hurt After Silver Star Collides Head-on With CSX Auto Rack Train in South Carolina

February 5, 2018

Two Amtrak crew members were killed and more than 100 injured early Sunday morning when the Miami-bound Silver Star was misrouted into the path of a parked CSX freight train.

The accident happened at 2:35 a.m. in Cayce, South Carolina, about 10 miles south of a the train’s previous station stop at Columbia, South Carolina.

Officials said Train No. 91 had 147 aboard and 110 of them were reported to have suffered injuries ranging from minor cuts to broken bones. Nine of those aboard were Amtrak employees.

Killed were Amtrak engineer Michael Kempf, 54, of Savannah, Georgia, and conductor Michael Cella, 36 of Orange Park, Florida.

Dr. Eric Brown, the executive physician for Palmetto Health,  said six people were admitted to hospitals for more severe injuries, including head trauma.

National Transportation Board Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt said on Sunday afternoon that the switch had been manually “lined and locked” to divert the Amtrak train into the freight train.

“Of course 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,” Sumwalt said.

Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson said during a conference call with reporters that before the crash the Amtrak crew was communicating with a CSX dispatcher by phone because a signaling system that governs traffic in the area was down for maintenance.

Authorities said investigators are still trying to determine how fast the Silver Star was going at the time of the collision, but the top speed there is 59 mph.

Sumwalt said the CSX train had two locomotives and 34 empty auto rack cars. It had unloaded automobiles on the west side of the main line and then used it to back into a siding on the east side of the main line.

“We were able to see that it was actually literally locked with a padlock to make it lined to go into the siding,” Sumwalt said of the switch on the main.

He said investigators will focus on why the switch wasn’t restored to its normal position before Amtrak No. 91 arrived.

NTSB personnel at the scene retrieved a front-facing video camera from Amtrak P42DC No. 47 and sent to their laboratory in Washington for review. The train’s event data recorder had not been located as of Sunday evening.

“I can tell you there’s catastrophic damage to each of the locomotives,” Sumwalt said. “In fact, I would say that the Amtrak locomotive would be not recognizable at all.”

The consist of the Amtrak train included a P42 locomotive, three Amfleet coaches, an Amfleet cafe lounge, two Viewliner sleepers and a baggage car.

Sumwalt said the crash could have been avoided if positive train control had been in operation at the time.

About 5,000 gallons of diesel fuel was spilled after the collision, but authorities said it posted “no threat to the public at the time.”

Passengers who were not injured or had been treated for injuries were taken to a middle school for shelter.

They were later put aboard chartered buses to continue their journey southward.

Amtrak Employees Say Training Was Inadequate

January 30, 2018

Cable news channel CNN has reported that some Amtrak engineers and conductors raised concerns about the lack of adequate training before the passenger carrier launched revenue service on a new route in Washington state last month.

The report said that during practice runs some trainees rode backward, which prevented them from seeing landmarks that they could use to identify locations where they would need to reduce speed.

The training runs were also conducted at night, the employees said, because construction workers were rushing to finish work on the Point Defiance bypass during the day.

The news broke in the wake of a Dec. 18 derailment near DePont, Washington, of a Portland-bound Cascades train in which three passengers were killed.

The derailment occurred on the first day of revenue service on the Point Defiance bypass via Tacoma, Washington.

A preliminary National Transportation Board report has indicated that the train was traveling twice the speed limit that it should have been going into a 30-mph curve.

Other news outlets also have reported that some Amtrak employees have said the carrier lacks a good safety culture and that they did not receive enough training on the new route.

A former Amtrak conductor described the safety culture as virtually non-existent.

“If you talk about safety to your manager you’re punished,” said Michael Callanan, who worked at Amtrak for nine years and is now a railroad safety consultant. He said the lack of training at Amtrak has been going on for as long as he can remember.

Callanan said conductors should do at least three to five roundtrip runs of the route to become familiar with it and those trips need to be done during daylight hours.

The NTSB has said that the engineer of the train that derailed did not feel that he had enough training on the new route. The agency has said it will examine the training that Amtrak employees received as part of its investigation.

Amtrak has not responded to new media requests to comment on its training and safety programs.

 

Cascades Engineer Missed Speed Warning Sign

January 27, 2018

The National Transportation Safety Board said this week that the engineer of the Amtrak Cascades train that derailed in Washington State last month, killing three passengers, told investigators that he missed seeing a speed-limit sign along the track shortly before the train derailed.

The 55-year-old engineer remembered that the Portland-bound train was traveling 70 mph as it passed milepost 15.5. He said he was aware of an upcoming curve with a 30 mph speed restriction was at milepost 19.8 and planned to apply the brakes about a mile in advance.

However, the engineer said he did not see mileposts 16, 17 or 18 or a sign warning of the 30 mph zone, which is posted two miles before the curve.

In his interview, the engineer said he saw a block signal at milepost 19.8 — at the accident curve — but thought it a signal that is located north of the curve.

Upon seeing the 30 mph sign at the beginning of the curve, the engineer said he applied the brakes. Seconds later the train left the tracks on the curve.

Other points made by the engineer was that he didn’t feel that having a qualifying conductor in the locomotive with him was a distraction, that he had no reservations about his readiness to operate the train and that he felt rested when the trip began.

The train had locomotives on each end, 10 passenger cars and a baggage car. Investigators have said the train was doing 78 mph when it derailed on a bridge over Interstate 5 near DuPont, Washington.

Two passengers cars landed on the interstate highway during the crash. There were 83 people on board the train with 62 of them suffering injuries. Eight people in vehicles on the highway were injured.

The conductor was in the lead locomotive to learn the route, which was being operated by Amtrak in revenue service for the first time on the day of the derailment.

He told investigators the engineer appeared alert during a job briefing and while operating the train. The NTSB investigation is expected to last 12 to 24 months.

Amtrak Wants Cascade Route PTC Turned On ASAP

January 15, 2018

Amtrak has told the departments of transportation in Oregon and Washington that that it wants positive train control tested and implemented on the Seattle-Portland route “as soon as possible.”

During a legislative hearing in Washington state last week, Amtrak Senior Government Affairs Manager Rob Eaton said sensors and radio links trackside, on locomotives and on a central server still need to be integrated.

“The testing and interaction of all three of these elements will take place during the second and third quarters of the year, after which PTC will be placed into operation,” he said.

Many believe that had PTC been in operation that derailment of a southbound Cascades Service train could have been avoided.

Three passengers died in the wreck, which authority had linked to the train going 78 miles per hour in a 30 mph zone near Olympia, Washington.

The train was traveling on the first day of revenue service on the Point Defiance bypass route.

Eaton said implementing PTC is complicated by the fact that three different railroads own sections of the route, including BNSF, Union Pacific and Sound Transit.

During the hearing Amtrak officials said PTC is not in operation on any Amtrak route west of the Mississippi River.

Washington state Secretary of Transportation Roger Millar testified that there was not undue pressure to launch high speed rail service before Amtrak locomotive engineers and crews had become qualified on the Point Defiance Bypass route.

“There was no deadline for initiating service,” Millar said, but did say there had been deadlines for completing construction on track and signal upgrades

Millar said those were not a factor in the December derailment.

NTSB Issues Preliminary Cascade Accident Report

January 5, 2018

A preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board avoids seeking to pin point the cause of the Dec. 18 Amtrak derailment near DuPont, Washington, that left three passengers dead and 62 crew members and passengers injured.

The Board expects its investigation to take at least a year.

The report said that investigators have not yet been able to interview the engineer or conductor involved in the derailment due to their injuries.

Other information in the preliminary report indicates that not only was the train speeding at the time of the derailment, but the train, Cascades Service No. 501 from Seattle to Portland, Oregon, did not slow prior to the accident.

The train was traveling 78 mph at the time of the derailment in a zone where the top speed was 30 mph.

The report said the authorized track speed north of the accident site is 79 mph and decreases to 30 mph before a curve over Interstate 5.

A 30 mph speed sign was posted 2 miles before the curve on the engineer’s side of the track. Another 30 mph sign was on the wayside at the start of the curve on the engineer’s side.

About six seconds before the accident, the locomotive engineer commented on an over speed condition to an Amtrak conductor who was also in the cab learning the route.

The NTSB said inward facing cameras showed that neither crew member was observed using personal electronic devices in the cab.

The derailment caused $40.4 million in damage. Aside from those injured aboard the train, eight people in vehicles on Interstate 5 were injured when train cars landed on the highway after going off a bridge.

The train had a leading and trailing locomotive, a power car, 10 passenger cars and a luggage car.

A positive train control system was not in operation on the route at the time of the accident.

“In this accident, PTC would have notified the engineer of train 501 about the speed reduction for the curve; if the engineer did not take appropriate action to control the train’s speed, PTC would have applied the train brakes to maintain compliance with the speed restriction and to stop the train,” the report states.

The 55-year-old engineer had worked for Amtrak since May 2004 and had been promoted to engineer in August 2013. The 48-year-old qualifying conductor had been working for Amtrak since June 2010.