National News

Fatal Amtrak Crash in South Carolina Is New Challenge for Rail Service

CAYCE, S.C. — Amtrak suffered its third high-profile crash in less than seven weeks early Sunday when a passenger train traveling on the wrong track slammed into a stationary freight train in South Carolina, killing two people and intensifying worries about the safety and reliability of passenger rail service in the United States.

Posted Updated

JOHN JETER, New York Times

CAYCE, S.C. — Amtrak suffered its third high-profile crash in less than seven weeks early Sunday when a passenger train traveling on the wrong track slammed into a stationary freight train in South Carolina, killing two people and intensifying worries about the safety and reliability of passenger rail service in the United States.

Although the crash was the subject of a federal inquiry Sunday, Amtrak’s chief executive, Richard H. Anderson, said that a signal system had been down and that dispatchers from another company, CSX, were routing trains at about the time of the wreck. The passenger train, heading south, was diverted onto a rail siding where, while apparently traveling below the speed limit, it crashed into a CSX train that had been loaded with automobiles.

But with the specific sequence of events and cause of the crash unlikely to be settled for many months, the episode, which injured at least 116 people and allowed thousands of gallons of fuel to spill, posed a new challenge for an already beleaguered Amtrak.

By one crucial metric, Amtrak is stronger than ever: In its most recent fiscal year, it posted a record-high ridership of about 31.7 million passenger trips. Yet a series of fatal accidents in recent months have triggered a test of confidence in the rail service.

“Amtrak has put a question in people’s minds,” said James E. Hall, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the crash in South Carolina.

On Wednesday, a train carrying Republican members of Congress to a retreat in West Virginia hit a garbage truck in rural Virginia, killing a passenger in the truck. And in December, a passenger train on a newly opened Amtrak route jumped the tracks on an overpass near Seattle, slamming rail cars into a busy highway, killing at least three people and injuring about 100 others.

Federal Railroad Administration statistics have shown that in recent years the agency has had an average of about two derailments a month, accounting for about one-quarter of the accidents it reports.

Derailments rarely cause more than minor injuries, but the aftermath was tragically different Sunday not far from Columbia, the state capital.

Gov. Henry McMaster said the engine of the Amtrak train, which had been carrying eight crew members and 139 passengers on its route from New York to Miami, was “barely recognizable.”

“It’s a horrible thing to see — to understand the force that this involved,” McMaster said.

The Lexington County coroner, Margaret Fisher, identified the dead as Amtrak employees: the train’s 54-year-old engineer, Michael Kempf, of Savannah, Georgia, and a conductor, Michael Cella, 36, of Orange Park, Florida. Both men were in the first car of the train.

“We should have had a lot more casualties, but we didn’t,” she said.

Dozens of passengers were taken to a nearby middle school, where the American Red Cross set up a temporary shelter and passengers tried to make sense of what had happened aboard Train 91 at about 2:35 a.m. Sunday.

“It just started shaking, you could actually feel the cars hitting the back of our train,” said Samuel Rodriguez, an unemployed metalworker from Brooklyn, who had been sitting beside his mother as they traveled to Florida. “Smoke. Screaming. I went to pick up one kid, checked my mother out to see if she was all right: ‘Ma, you all right? Don’t move.'”

Rodriguez continued: “That’s when I went between aisles, and I saw a kid bleeding all over, his skull was showing, and his mother was in shock. So I run to the back, try to get to the bathroom. Bathroom’s tore up, toilet bowl’s out, everything’s a disaster, and I’m like, ‘Wow, I’m still walking.'”

He said his mother suffered a fractured nose and injured her leg in the crash, and was released from Lexington Medical Center in Columbia.

Officials said that about 115 other Amtrak passengers had been transferred to local hospitals. The CSX train did not have any passengers on board, McMaster said. In a post on Twitter, President Donald Trump expressed his condolences to victims of the crash and thanked emergency workers. Rep. Joe Wilson, a Republican who represents this area, visited the Red Cross shelter and said he remained confident in Amtrak. But days after being aboard the train that derailed in Virginia, Wilson suggested that his experience Sunday of seeing first responders and shaken passengers had been deeply unusual.

“It’s surreal,” Wilson said. “I identify with the passengers that you want to continue right away.”

Federal officials said it was far too early to conclude with certainty what had happened and, more crucially, how.

At a news conference near the crash site, Robert L. Sumwalt, the current NTSB chairman, ruled out foul play and said investigators initially believed that a switch had been manually thrown and then padlocked.

“The key to this investigation is learning why that switch was lined that way because the expectation was, of course, that the Amtrak train would be operating like this,” he said, pointing to a whiteboard showing the passenger train’s southbound direction.

Amtrak has described itself as a “safe and reliable transporter,” but Mark V. Rosenker, a former chairman of the NTSB, said that although Sunday’s accident was another in a “series of anomalies,” it perhaps hinted at a “lack of safety culture” at Amtrak.

“Accidents are never one thing,” Rosenker said. “They’re a chain of events which come together which create a catastrophic result.”

He suspected that Sunday’s crash involved some discrepancy in the way CSX communicates with Amtrak, which does not own large swaths of the track it uses, and Hall suggested that the design of the nation’s rail network invited collisions between passenger and freight trains.

“Every day that Amtrak is going over these tracks with freight trains, which they do on a daily basis in our country, the potential for an event like this is real,” he said.

CSX said it was working with federal investigators, but Amtrak seemed to move swiftly to direct blame toward the company.

“CSX owns and controls the Columbia Subdivision where the accident occurred,” Amtrak said in a statement. “CSX maintains all of the tracks and signal systems. CSX controls the dispatching of all trains, including directing the signal systems which control the access to sidings and yards.” By the end of a rainy and cold Sunday here, though, it was clear that the crash would be another stain on Amtrak’s reputation. The company has been under particular scrutiny since 2015, when one of its trains derailed in Philadelphia, killing eight people and injuring more than 200. A Pennsylvania judge dismissed involuntary manslaughter charges against the Amtrak engineer, saying it appeared to be an accident and not the result of criminal negligence.

Amtrak has installed technology known as positive train control on parts of its rail network in the Northeast Corridor after passenger trains traveling well above the speed limit derailed, leaving a trail of death and injuries.

Rail experts said they believed that the technology would have prevented Sunday’s crash but noted that CSX was not required to have it operating before the end of 2018. Near the site of the wreckage, Sumwalt offered a heated assessment: “How many years have we been calling for PTC? PTC is designed to mitigate mistakes like this. This is, indeed, a human mistake.”

The federal investigation into Sunday’s crash is likely to be a protracted one, and officials should be aided by cameras aboard the Amtrak train: one depicting the engineer’s view, and another that should show what the engineer was doing at the time of the crash. The NTSB, which said its investigators would work on the scene in South Carolina for five to seven days, said that the outward-facing video had been recovered and would be analyzed in Washington.

But on Sunday, after yet another crash, researchers, experts and Amtrak officials alike independently had begun a new round of lamentations about what they said was an irregular focus on U.S. rail safety.

Anderson, the former Delta Air Lines executive who recently became Amtrak’s leader, said the company faced an enormous backlog of “stay-in-good-repair investment,” but that upgrades required pulling up tracks and widespread inconveniences, like reduced schedules. Still, he said, that is exactly what was needed.

“We’ve got to bring the same sort of focus and safety cultures that you have in the airlines to the railroad industry in America,” he said.

Copyright 2023 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.