A federal board questioned representatives from railroads and the Federal Railroad Administration as it gathers information about possible reforms after a fatal train crash near Cayce earlier this year
The National Transportation Safety Board has not concluded its investigation into the crash that killed two Amtrak employees. Preliminary investigation determined the Amtrak train crashed into a parked freight train because a switch was wrongly set to divert the Amtrak train off the mainline and onto the siding where the freight train was parked.
The Managing Safety on Passenger Railroad hearing also addressed a 2017 Amtrak derailment in DuPont, Washington.
“Our purpose for being here is to make sure that things like this don’t happen again,” NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said. “We also hope that the hearing will help to answer questions that you may have.”
An Amtrak representative told the panel that nearly all of the tracks the passenger rail line runs service on are owned by other railroad companies.
“97 percent of the nearly 21,000 route miles Amtrak operates are owned by other railroads,” said Amtrak’s Host Railroad Group director Jim Blair said. “This dependency on host railroads is a central feature of Amtrak’s business model and at times, a significant challenge.”
When asked by board member Earl Weener if a host railroad agreement Amtrak has with these railroads address system safety issues or how to operate during signal suspensions, Blair responded “no” to both questions.
CSX was conducting work on a rail notification system at the time of the crash and the preliminary investigation concluded that a system that should have warned the Amtrak train about the wrongly-set switch was not functioning. A CSX employee told the panel the crew had not completed its work and was to return the next day. Click here to read the most recent report on the crash.
According to the February 21 report, the Amtrak engineer was made aware by the local dispatcher that the signals in the area were not functioning.
“After Amtrak PO9103 received authority to enter the signal suspension, the conductor, as an extra precaution decided to ride on the lead locomotive. Prior to departing Columbus, (sic) South Carolina the Amtrak PO9103 conductor told the assistant conductor that he would be riding on the headend (lead locomotive) with the engineer to talk him through the suspension, as he did not feel comfortable with the engineer being by himself.”
Both the engineer and conductor died in the crash.
Sumwalt asked a CSX representative if the railroad was trying to save money by not requiring the work to be completed before the crew was done for the day.
“We had a lot of employees in this area on the southern region doing multiple cutovers on that very same Saturday, so money was not the case,” CSX Assistant Chief Engineer for Communications and Signals Jason Schroeder said. “Our biggest focus is trying to get this work done.”
The NTSB said 139 passengers and eight crew members were on board the Miami-bound Amtrak train when it crashed. 92 people were taken to area hospitals for treatment.
Among the issues addressed at the hearing: legislative mandates for operations and Amtrak host railroad agreements, CSX signal project, FRA regulations and requirements for safe operations during signal suspensions, and Amtrak operations on host railroads.
The hearing is scheduled to continue Wednesday. Click here to watch a live stream of the hearing.
According to the February 21 report, a conductor was aboard the CSX freight train at the time of impact. The engineer had gotten out to check the switch when the Amtrak train arrived at the scene. He saw the approaching train and managed to run out of the way.
“The conductor said ‘they [Amtrak] just hit the side and came flying fast down right at us.’ The conductor ran out the back door of the locomotive. When Amtrak struck train CSXT 777-03, the conductor was thrown and pinned between the CSXT and Amtrak locomotives, the conductor after a few moments managed to free himself. The conductor said that he was doused in diesel fuel and when the engineer arrived he said, ‘I can’t believe you made it out.'”
In day two of the hearing, Amtrak executives said the company has made several safety policy changes regarding operating during signal suspensions since the crash.
“Following the accident in Cayce, South Carolina, Amtrak moved swiftly to acquire SMS (Safety Management System) methodology by performing risk assessments of planned signal suspensions,” said CEO Scot Naparstek. “We have risk assessments of planned signal suspensions. We have centralized key decisions related to employee qualifications ensuring a level of standardization. We have implemented a risk-assessment process for territories that are non-signaled or dark.”
“We have worked to improve and expand the use of safety systems such as PTC (Positive Train Control) and are actively pursuing additional technological means to improve safety,” said Theresa Impastato, Amtrak Senior Director of System Safety. “We recognize that human error is an ever-present possibility in the functioning of complex systems such as a passenger railroad.”
“What we do now is proactively look at the signal suspension, look at the data involved and make a decision on what we believe is the best way to proceed,” Naparstek said. “Since the Cayce –since the system has been put in we have used it a number of times and it has proven successful.”
“If you are a customer of Amtrak we are responsible for you well-being,” he said. “From the point you enter our system, and that his prior to getting on a train, so if you enter our station, to the point that we — that you leave our system, we have to be responsible for our passengers and our customers and our employees.”