WASHINGTON – Railroads have taken significant steps to improve safety since a fatal February collision in South Carolina, Amtrak and CSX officials told federal investigators Tuesday.
Amtrak operates on the tracks of 34 other railroads nationwide covering 97% of its route miles. Justin Meko, Amtrak’s vice president of safety, compliance and training, told the National Transportation Safety Board that Amtrak enhanced its safety reviews for construction projects after the collision and often adopts stricter safety measures than railroads that own the tracks. But cooperation from host railroads has been tremendous, he said.
“Amtrak is and will continue to do all that it can to accelerate safety efforts,” Meko said.
CSX was upgrading the track with automatic-braking technology that Congress required, suspending signals along the tracks as it has hundreds of times in recent years to install and test the equipment, railroad officials said. Since the collision, CSX adopted safety enhancements used 12 times already this year that require at least two workers to confirm when switches are locked and signals suspended, they said.
The comments came at a two-day hearing of the National Transportation Safety Board about fatal Amtrak crashes. The board continues to investigate what caused each crash but held the hearing to gather more information from companies involved and federal regulators who oversee the industry. The board has already urged trains move slower through construction zones.
“Our purpose for being here is to make sure that things like this don’t happen again,” Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt said.
On Feb. 4, an Amtrak train was diverted to a siding where it collided with a parked CSX train in Cayce, S.C. The track was being updated with automatic-braking equipment and the switch was aligned in a way that sent the New York-to-Miami Amtrak train onto the siding, investigators have said.
Amtrak engineer Michael Kempf, 54, of Savannah, Georgia, and conductor Michael Cella, 36, of Orange Park, Florida, were killed, and 92 others were transported to medical facilities.
Video just obtained by CBS News released Tuesday shows for the first time the collision as it happened.
On Dec. 18, 2017, an Amtrak train derailed on its first passenger trip on new track in Dupont, Washington. The train derailed as it headed into a 30-mph turn at 78 mph, investigators said. The crash killed three passengers and injured 57 people on the train and eight in vehicles on the highway below the train overpass that were hit by train cars.
Amtrak's Meko said after the South Carolina collision the railroad has taken a closer look at construction projects 30 times in an effort to identify risk and mitigate them.
Elements that Amtrak studies include switches, the type of territory, the number of grade-level crossings, construction equipment along the track and the weather forecast, Meko said. Steps that Amtrak has taken include stopping at a switch to confirm it is aligned correctly, rerouting around a signal suspension, linking rail service with buses and even canceling service, he said.
“Those are a few of the mitigations that we’ve applied,” Meko said. “We can no longer simply rely on the operating rule book of the host and must instead augment our host operating practices in ways that meaningfully enhance safety of operations.”
Jason Schroeder, CSX’s assistant chief engineer for the communication and signal department, said the railroad began enhancing safety after the South Carolina crash with more crew briefings and by reducing the number of times switches are changed while signals are suspended.
When switches are locked during a signal suspension, two employees from two departments must confirm the change.
“No longer can train crews operate the signal department involvement,” Schroeder said.
Matthew Meadows, director of operating rules and practices at CSX, said workers who restore a main track switch must remain until the switch is verbally confirmed. All crew members must release a track to ensure everyone is on the same page, he said.
“If confusion or a question arises after the authority has been released, the authority requires that they immediately contact the train dispatcher,” Meadows said.