More details about the cause of the crash will come out soon, and the NTSB is expected to deliver a briefing on Monday afternoon. The passenger train’s forward-facing video recorder has been sent to Washington for analysis, though neither train’s data recorder had been found as of Sunday. The NTSB’s final determination of probable cause is likely to take months.
Amtrak, the government-created and -subsidized passenger-rail corporation, has long been a target of abuse from politicians and the public alike, who make often contradictory demands that the railroad provide better, faster service (and reliable wifi to boot), but do so while spending less money. Amtrak seems to always be operating near the limits of its budget, but in the last fiscal year it set records for ridership, revenue, and earnings—though that still left it in the red.
Amtrak has also been blasted by regulators for its safety record. After an NTSB investigation into a 2016 derailment that killed two railroad employees on the ground, NTSB Chair Robert Sumwalt offered blistering criticism. “Amtrak’s safety culture is failing, and is primed to fail again, until and unless Amtrak changes the way it practices safety management,” he said in November. Add to that the Amtrak 188 crash in Philadelphia and the derailment of Amtrak 501 near Tacoma, in which some reports have raised questions as to whether Amtrak staff was adequately trained on a stretch of rail before the fatal wreck on a maiden run, and Amtrak’s public reputation has taken a beating.
Does that fit the facts in the South Carolina crash? It’s too soon to know for sure, but there are signs it doesn’t. Amtrak 91 was traveling south in Cayce, South Carolina, when a switch diverted it to a siding to the west of the main line, where it slammed into a parked CSX freight train Sunday. Amtrak owns some of the rail on which it runs trains, but on the vast majority of its routes, including this South Carolina stretch, it uses rail owned by other companies—in this case, CSX. That means CSX has primary responsibility for safety and operations. Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson said that signals on the corridor were not functioning properly, so CSX was manually dispatching trains along the route.
In a briefing Sunday, Sumwalt said that the CSX train had delivered automobiles to the east side of the north-south track, then backed north up the main line, and finally moved on to the siding to the west of the track. When the Amtrak train came later, it should have continued south along the mainline, but a switch at the junction of the mainline and the siding was moved to direct any train coming south onto the siding. The switch was locked into place with a padlock, Sumwalt said, which is standard procedure when a switch is moved. The engineer in the locomotive would have been unable to override the switch, and it’s not yet known if he or she braked before hitting the parked passenger train.