‘It appears Amtrak was on the wrong track;’ switch may have been in wrong position

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The scene of the Amtrak crash in Cayce.
The Amtrak train that collided Sunday morning with a freight train and killed two people appeared to be on the wrong track, possibly because a switch was in the wrong position, S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster and state officials said Sunday.

Invesigators now are trying to determine if the switch was misaligned, causing the passenger train to run off the main line and collide with the parked freight train, according to the S.C. Office of Regulatory Staff.

The CSX freight train was empty, stationary and on a loading track when the collision occurred, McMaster said. The Amtrak train was traveling about 50 mph, within the posted 59 mph speed limit, according to the regulatory staff agency.

“It appears to me that the CSX train was on the track it was supposed to be on,” McMaster said. “It appears Amtrak was on the wrong track.”

Tom Allen, a transportation safety director with the state ORS, said “it was probably a switching issue’’ that caused the Amtrak train to run onto the side track.

The National Transportation Safety Board will be looking into the matter as the lead investigative agency, Allen said. Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board will be arriving on site all day, and that includes NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt, a Columbia native.

“Part of the preliminary indications are that it would have to be a switching issue,’’ Allen told The State. “It was no derailment caused by a flaw in the track. The Amtrak was on the wrong track.’’

CSX, which owns the track, would be responsible for maintaining the switch on the track, Allen said.

The federal government has been moving to institute what is known as “positive train control,’’ a system that would warn speeding trains of upcoming dangers. But Allen said indications are that positive train controls had not yet been implemented.

“At this time, to my knowledge, this train did not have the PTC,’’ or positive train control, Allen said.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration, Congress required some railroad mainlines, including those with commuter rail passenger service, to fully implement positive train control by the end of 2015. But Congress extended the deadline by at least three years to December 31, 2018, according to the FRA.

Such technology acts similar to a breaking system, to prevent crashes.

The two people who died were Amtrak workers, McMaster said. More than 100 were treated at local hospitals for various injuries.

“It’s a horrible thing to see to understand the force that is involved,” McMaster said after viewing scene. “The first engine of the freight train was torn up and the single engine of the Amtrak train was barely recognizable. It was quite a crash.”

Sunday’s crash brought back memories for many people of a disastrous train wreck that occurred in Graniteville 13 years ago, when a freight train ran off a main line and collided with a parked train on a side track. In that case, a switch was determined to be in the wrong position.

The difference between the Graniteville wreck and the Cayce crash is that chemicals were not involved with the Cayce wreck, according to preliminary reports. The Graniteville wreck killed nine people when chlorine was released over the small mill town in Aiken County.

On Sunday, McMaster visited with the Cayce passengers who were taken to a Red Cross shelter set up at nearby Pine Ridge Middle School. He said he counted 32 people being taken care of at the school.

“The spirits, under the circumstances, were very good,” he said.

This is the second fatal Amtrak crash nationally in a week and the third in the last few months. Three people were killed in Washington State in December when an Amtrak train crashed there.

Other key news and developments from Sunday’s crash.

▪  The crash occurred near Charleston Highway and Pine Ridge Road around 2:35 a.m. Sunday. The lead Amtrak car and a few passenger cars derailed.

▪  There were eight crew members and approximately 139 passengers on board. Anyone seeking info about passengers on Train 91 should call the Amtrak info line at 1-800-523-9101.

▪  All the passengers have been removed from Amtrak 91, which was operating from New York to Miami.

▪  116 people were taken to local hospitals with various injuries.

▪  The White House released this statement: “The President has been briefed on the train accident in South Carolina and is receiving regular updates. Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone that has been affected by this incident.

Here’s what you need to know about the train collision in Cayce, SC

A crash involving an Amtrak passenger train and a freight train in Cayce, South Carolina on February 4, 2018, killed at least two people and injured more than 70.