In 2008, a federal law was passed to require railroad companies to implement Positive Train Control (PTC) – “a system that combines GPS, wireless radio and computers to monitor trains and stop them from colliding, derailing or speeding” by 2015. (CNN.com) PTC compensates for human error by monitoring train positions and track conditions.
Unfortunately, in October of 2015, Congress extended the deadline to December 31, 2018. Another extension to 2020 was granted at the end of 2018 to railroad companies that met certain criteria.
Because this requirement had not yet been met, in February of 2018 two Amtrak employees were killed and over 100 passengers injured in Cayce, South Carolina, when an Amtrak passenger train crashed into a stopped engine on the tracks. At the time, crews were ironically installing PTC on two engines sitting on the track.
An investigation into this accident revealed that “a switch left in the wrong position, which caused the Amtrak train to reroute onto a side track, where two CSX engines sat while railroad crews worked [was to blame]. A signal that would have warned the moving train’s operators of the out-place-switch was also turned off by the crew working the railroad.” (The State)
Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board in Columbia, SC said that a fully functional PTC could have kept this accident from happening. “That is what it is designed to do.”
In SC, new equipment, including PTC is now installed and operational in all trains and rails operated by CSX and Norfolk Southern, the two major railroad companies in SC. Also, Amtrak says the technology required for this equipment to work is operational on all of its trains that go through SC.
Nationwide, CSX, Norfolk Southern, and other major railroads are working toward having the PTC system fully functional by the 2020 deadline. $10.5 billion has already been spent on installing PTC by the railroad industry. The Association of American Railroads reports that it will cost hundreds of millions a year to maintain the system.
Other safety standards have also been changed, as a result of the 2018 accident:
- CSX hired a new chief safety officer
- CSX redesigned safety training
- CSX strengthened rules and testing
- CSX has made it easier for employees to report safety issues
- “The Federal Railroad Administration enacted an emergency order to reduce train speeds in areas where switches and signals may be an issue.”
These safety measures came too late for Christine Cella, whose husband died in the 2018 Amtrak crash. Cella filed and settled a wrongful death suit against CSX and Amtrak for negligence and safety failures.
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