Train Accidents

$25 Million in Train crash damages

The fatal Amtrak crash outside Columbia in early February caused more damage than the past decade of South Carolina rail accidents combined.

The National Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday the Feb. 4 crash caused an estimated $25 million in damage. An Amtrak train smashed into a CSX train parked outside a terminal in Cayce, leaving behind a tangled mess of steel.

The accident, which killed two Amtrak crew members and sent scores to the hospital, was quickly regarded as one of the worst in South Carolina history.

The NTSB’s estimate highlights just how damaging the crash was: In an instant in the wee hours of the morning, the Amtrak train triggered a bigger bill than the combined total of every rail accident in the state since 2008. Those mishaps – more than 150 in all – caused less than $22 million in damage, according to a review of Federal Railroad Administration data.

The locomotive destruction was a part of the loss.

The damage estimate was released as part of the NTSB’s initial report on the crash, which restated a narrative that has gradually taken shape in the weeks since the accident. The Amtrak crew had only a few seconds to blow the train’s horn, kill the throttle and slam on brakes before hitting the CSX train.

Their efforts mattered little. By the time they realized a track switch was set the wrong way, they were only a few hundred yards away. And while they were following the speed limit, the train was traveling at 56 mph and headed toward an empty freight train parked off the main line.

The trains collided on a section of track where signals weren’t operating. CSX, which owns the rails, was installing a long-delayed automatic-braking system intended to prevent crashes like this one.

The NTSB said its investigators studied the tracks and rail signals, collected records from that night and interviewed crew members and train dispatchers. The agency even sent a team to CSX’s headquarters in Jacksonville, Fla., to test the railroad’s dispatching system.

The agency hasn’t determined a probable cause for the Amtrak crash, but NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt has said the braking system known as positive train control might have prevented it, a common refrain in NTSB investigations.

The crash has parallels to the worst rail accident in South Carolina history, which happened in 2005 in the small Aiken County town of Graniteville.

Workers there parked their train after a long shift, and they forgot to reset the switch that led into town. Later that night, the switch put a train carrying chlorine gas on a collision course with the one they had parked. The collision and gas fumes killed nine and hospitalized 75 others.

The Graniteville crash was one of a string of high-profile accidents caused by human error in the mid-2000s that eventually led federal lawmakers to mandate a positive train control system. Congress delayed its implementation when the railroad industry said it needed more time, and it’s unlikely to be fully operational until 2020.

Both accidents highlight a common theme on America’s railroads: Switches are routinely set the wrong direction, causing an accident every three days, according to a Post and Courier review of crash data.

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