Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak derailments’

NTSB Looking at Talgo Safety

July 24, 2018

The National Transportation Safety Board probe into the December 2017 derailment of an Amtrak Cascades train that killed three and injured more than 60 is focusing on the safety of the Talgo equipment involved in the incident.

“Now that we have evidence of how the Talgo trainset performs in a crash, does the [Federal Railroad Administration] have any concerns that would cause you to re-examine your decision to grandfather this equipment?” NTSB investigator Michael Hiller asked an FRA during a recent hearing.

In response, the FRA’s Gary Fairbanks said, “I didn’t see anything as the way the cars performed that would cause us to go back and reconsider the grandfathering petition because the items that were covered in the grandfathering petition performed adequately.”

The Talgo equipment involved in the derailment had been operating under a FRA waiver.

During the hearings, the NTSB also zeroed in on the training of Amtrak locomotive engineers.

The derailment occurred on the first day of revenue service on the Point Defiance Bypass between Tacoma and Nisqually, Washington.

NTSB investigators are also questioning if Amtrak did enough to identify a potentially dangerous curve at DuPont, Washington, where Cascades No. 501 derailed.

At issue was whether Amtrak operating personnel received a sufficient number of familiarization trips over the route before revenue service began.

Most of the training runs were made at night to avoid interfering with Sounder commuter trains during the day.

Testimony at the NTSB hearing showed that one training run had seven people in the cab, exceeding the number considered safe by Amtrak standards.

Locomotive engineers were not only learning a new route, but a new locomotive, the SC-44 Charger.

In interviews with NTSB investigators, the engineer of Cascades No. 501 said the curve at milepost 19.8 was on his mind, but that his limited familiarity with the lines of sight from the Charger locomotive may have hindered his ability to see the wayside warning signs until it was too late.

As Cascades No. 501 entered a 30 mph curve, it was traveling at 78 mph.

Mike DeCataldo, Amtrak’s senior director for system safety and customer satisfaction, said  Amtrak will only begin a new service or route “once all safety precautions and mitigations are in place.”

DeCataldo said Amtrak will require a minimum of four round-trips over the entirety of the new route, up from the previous minimum of one, before an engineer or conductor is qualified to operate over it.

Amtrak has said it will not use the Point Defiance Bypass until positive train control train is installed, which is not expected until the end of this year.

In a related development, an Amtrak mechanic has filed a federal whistleblower complaint in connection with the Cascades derailment, saying carrier ignored his safety concerns on the day of the accident.

Michael McClure said in the complaint that he told his superiors that there was a mechanical failure in the trainset that later derailed.

“They were more primarily concerned about getting it out in time for the inaugural run than looking at the safety aspect of it,” McClure said.

He contends that the fault dealt with the train’s braking system. However, it has not been formally established if that played a part in the derailment.

McClure’s complaint alleges that Amtrak has “an ongoing pattern and practice of violating the Federal Railroad Safety Act.”

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Attorney Says Cascade Trainset Was Defective

June 8, 2018

An attorney representing a passenger injured in the December 2017 derailment of an Amtrak Cascades Service train is claiming that the trainset involved in the crash had electrical problems that prevented it from braking properly.

Attorney Jim Vucinovik said he learned of the problem from a whistleblower.

“Amtrak knew that there was an electrical failure of that trainset before it was put into service that morning,” Vuconovik said. “There was a shutdown between the head-end locomotive and the rear locomotive, which are normally linked electronically. Rather than fix that, or get to the root cause of that problem, they de-linked that rear unit which then meant that the rear locomotive unit was not available for braking and/or throttle effect.”

Three passengers were killed in the derailment near DuPont, Washington, and more than 60 others were injured.

A preliminary findings of the National Transportation Safety Board was that the train was traveling at more than twice the posted speed limit just before reaching the curve where it derailed.

NTSB Sets Hearings in 2 Amtrak Crashes

May 25, 2018

The National Transportation Safety Board will hold hearings on July 10-11 into two Amtrak crashes that resulted in multiple fatalities.

The hearing will be held in Washington and may be watched live via webcast.

Testimony will be taken from the Federal Railroad Administration; the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers; the Brotherhood of Locomotives Engineers and Trainmen; the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen; CSX; Sound Transit; Amtrak; the Washington State Department of Transportation; and the Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission.

One of the derailments involved a Cascades train going off the rails on Dec. 18, 2017, in DuPont, Washington, killing three passengers.

The other crash occurred on Feb. 4 near Cayce, South Carolina, when the southbound Silver Star collided head-on with a CSX auto rack train in a siding. That crash killed two Amtrak crew members.

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.

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.