Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
The fatal derailment in South Carolina is another reminder that passenger rail has a serious accountability problem.
The fatal Amtrak collision in South Carolina on Sunday night was the third fatal Amtrak crash in three months—and the second in just one week, after a train full of Republican senators collided with a truck in Virginia on January 31. This run of mishaps raises concerns about the passenger rail operator’s safety record, but, as with December’s dramatic crash on Washington’s Cascades Line, the schema of blame may be more complicated.
Two people died and more than 116 were injured when their passenger train slammed into a vacant CSX Corp freight train parked on a side track. It occurred just after 2:30 AM on Sunday in Cayce, a small city on the banks of the Congaree River. The collision also resulted in the leak of about 5,000 gallons of fuel.
An investigation is underway and it will be months before the cause of the crash is fully understood. But Amtrak representatives were quick to argue that it was not at fault. Richard Anderson, the president and chief executive of Amtrak, blamed CSX for a track misalignment that steered the passenger train onto the freight track. “CSX had lined and padlocked the switch off the mainline to the siding, causing the collision,” he said in a statement.
CSX did not address these comments and has said that it is working with federal investigators. “Key to this investigation is learning why the switch was lined that way,” said Robert Sumwalt, the chairman of the U.S. National Transportation Board.
As with earlier crashes, the incident has renewed calls for widespread implementation of “positive train control,” a technology that automatically brakes trains when it detects danger on the tracks. Meant to prevent the roughly 40 percent of crashes caused by human error, PTC could have likely stopped Sunday’s collision, according to rail experts. “How many years have we been calling for PTC?” Sumwalt said at a press conference on Sunday. “PTC is designed to mitigate mistakes like this. This is, indeed, a human mistake.”
In 2008, Congress mandated that all railroads carrying passengers and/or potentially toxic freight install PTC by 2015, a deadline that has been pushed back repeatedly. With each fresh incident, Amtrak is the most visible target of public outrage over PTC’s slow implementation.
The problem is that Amtrak does not own the vast majority of the tracks it operates on, including the segment where Sunday’s crash occurred. PTC is indeed activated on the tracks Amtrak owns along the Northeast Corridor, but 97 percent of Amtrak-operated tracks are owned by private freight operators like CSX, which owns and operates the tracks, signals, and switches on the segment where Sunday’s crash occurred. Just under half of CSX’s nationwide network is equipped with PTC, according to the Federal Railroad Administration, which puts it far ahead of many of its peers. Federal documents do not show which tracks specifically are PTC-enabled, though it appears that the South Carolina segment in question was not. Amtrak has not stated whether the locomotive in this incident was PTC-equipped.
CSX is further ahead than many other freight rail operators with this technology. Some companies have not even begun. For years, freight companies have battled with federal regulators over the costs and deadlines of PTC, largely without penalties. They have had few incentives to pick up the pace of these safety upgrades, not to mention little financial help from Congress.
Amtrak may well share the blame for this fatal accident. Rail operators must be in communication with one another when using shared tracks; the collision on Sunday could have been the consequence of a gap in communication, experts suggested. Yet there is also a gap in accountability for safety on the U.S. rail network—as much as public-facing Amtrak takes the beating, private freight companies are responsible, too.