The federally-created passenger rail corporation Amtrak, kept afloat by federal and state grants despite a lack of profits, has come under fire for a recent escalation in major wrecks.
On February 4, an Amtrak train hit a parked CSX freight train head-on in Cayce, S.C., killing 2 and injuring 116. Commenting on the accident, S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster told The Island Packet, “It appears to me that the CSX train was on the track it was supposed to be on. And that appeared to be a loading track… It appears Amtrak was on the wrong track.” National Transportation Safety Board investigators are still looking into the official cause of the crash. NPR notes that Amtrak blamed CSX for the accident.
On January 31, another Amtrak train wrecked into a garbage truck in Crozet, Va. This chartered train was carrying GOP members of Congress to a retreat. 2 people died and 6 were injured in the incident.
ABC News notes that another Amtrak passenger train, this one taking a curve at over twice the train’s speed limit, derailed in Dupont, Wash., on December 18, 2017, killing 3 and injuring 70.
Amtrak trains have also been involved in smaller crashes of late, such as a December 19 Kalamazoo, Mich. incident reported by 9 And 10 News in which one person was killed when an Amtrak train hit a truck at a railroad crossing.
Also on February 6, Amtrak train cars headed to New York City broke apart, according to New York Business Journal. There were no injuries or fatalities in that incident.
Bloomberg notes that National Transportation Safety Board officials say that the completion of a Congressionally mandated roll-out of a GPS-enabled railway tech called Positive Train Control, which can automatically stop trains before they hit obstructions, could have stopped some of the accidents. The 2008 policy issued an unfunded mandate that all railroads have the tech installed by 2015. When the policy was first announced, PTC technology had not yet been completely developed. As railroad companies began to struggle with the costs involved in installing PTC tech on all rail lines and trains, Congress issued an extension, giving companies until 2018 to begin installation.
A CSX spokesman addressing the February 4 South Carolina crash claimed that CSX is currently on schedule with PTC regulations and has plans in place to begin installation in 2018 and to have the system online by 2020.
Rep. Sean Maloney (D-N.Y.) said, “People are dying. We can’t wait any longer on getting PTC systems up and running nationwide. Congress has delayed this deadline time and again and we’ve seen the deadly results.”
Meanwhile, Amtrak has come under fire for what NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt characterized as a “lax” temperament towards accidents. In a meeting discussing potential causes of an April 2016 Amtrak wreck near Philadelphia, Sumwalt warned, “Amtrak’s safety culture is failing, and is primed to fail again.”
Though he had previously criticized the culture at Amtrak, Sumalt cautioned that each accident has a different cause, saying in a press briefing on Monday, “It’s very important that we have to look at each of these accidents in isolation to be able to determine if there are systemic issues. Are we willing to say that there’s a systemic issue with Amtrak? No, we’re not.”
Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson told USA Today that he hopes to instill a culture of safety in Amtrak similar to that of airlines like Delta, where he worked as CEO prior to Amtrak. “Amtrak is fully committed and values safety as its highest priority,” he said.
While regulators are quick to point to the struggles of implementing PTC when discussing these incidents, the spike in wrecks comes as 24 percent of passenger train miles and 45 percent of freight train miles already have the technology.
Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-Washington D.C.) called for a Congressional hearing on the accidents after the January 31 crash in Virginia, telling The Washington Post, “The public needs information and assurances on the safety of rail travel before the lengthy NTSB investigation on today’s accident, along with other ongoing NTSB investigations, such as last year’s Amtrak fatal derailment outside of Seattle, concludes. We provided Amtrak with significant funding.”
The Federal Railroad Administration has reported that 1,880 incidents, 96 of them involving trucks, took place at railroad crossings throughout the first 11 months of 2017. According to the Rail Passengers Association, a person or vehicle is hit by a train every 3 hours on average in the United States.