One Year After Deadly SC Train Derailment, Safety Upgrades Completed

Human error, government bureaucracy, and outdated technology were responsible for a deadly train crash in Lexington County, SC a year ago that took the lives of two railroad personnel and injured over 100 passengers. In the past year, new technology that could have prevented the accident, and that should have been in place when it happened, has been installed on all major railways in South Carolina.

A Preventable Accident

On the morning of February 4th, 2017, an Amtrak passenger train traveling at a high rate of speed past the town of Cayce smashed into an engine stopped on the tracks where railroad crews were at work. The impact derailed several cars and destroyed the Amtrak engine, killing the engineer and a conductor and sending 116 passengers to the hospital.

An investigation found that a switch was turned to the wrong position by the work crew which diverted the Amtrak train onto a side track where two CSX engines were parked. In addition, a signal that could have warned the Amtrak engineer that the switch was in the wrong position was disabled by the railway crew.

Ironically, the work crew was installing a system called Positive Train Control (PTC), technology designed to automatically brake or slow trains that are in an unsafe situation. The sophisticated system relies on computers, GPS, and wireless communications to monitor railroad track conditions in real-time and the location of trains. It is intended to counter human error of the kind that led to the Cayce crash.

Robert Sumwalt, of the National Transportation Safety Board, said, “A fully operational positive train control system could have avoided this accident. That is what it is designed to do.”

Improved Rail Safety In SC

In 2008, a federal law, the Rail Safety Improvement Act, was passed requiring the PTC system to be installed on railroads nationwide by 2015. But in October of that year, Congress extended the deadline to December 31st, 2018, with an extension until 2020 for rail companies that met certain requirements by the deadline date.

In South Carolina, installation of the PTC system on all railroad tracks and trains operated by Norfolk Southern and CSX, the main companies serving the state, was completed in December. The accident occurred on tracks owned by CSX. A recent company statement said, “We are beginning to see positive results from our efforts. In the fourth quarter of 2018, CSX delivered marked improvement in both the personal injury frequency index and train accident rate when compared with the same period for 2017.”

Statistics from the Federal Railroad Administration show that Amtrak has averaged two derailments a month in recent years.

If you or someone you know has been injured in a railroad-related accident in South Carolina, it’s essential to contact a qualified personal injury attorney to ensure your rights are protected.