Human Error and Train Crashes

The February 4, 2018, train crash near Cayce, SC, between an Amtrak train and a parked CSX freight train, killed two people and injured scores of others. Both the engineer and the conductor on the Amtrak train died, and over 100 passengers were taken to the hospital. Human error is considered the likely cause, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). It appears that a switch was set wrong, resulting in the passenger train’s hurtling down a side track, where it collided with the parked train.

The Cayce crash is considered the worst train crash in South Carolina history since the Graniteville train wreck in 2005, when nine people died.

A Misaligned Switch and Non-Operational Signals

In Cayce, the traffic control signal system had been suspended so that railroad crews could install a PTC (positive train control) system. (PTC systems, ironically enough, are supposed to prevent train crashes.) While signaling systems are not routinely deactivated for track work, when disabling does occur, crews count on dispatchers to tell them that tracks are clear of traffic.

Apparently, CSX workers disabled the signaling system on February 3 so they could work on the tracks during the 3rd and 4th of February. Workers quit at 7 p.m. on the 3rd without finishing the PTC system, leaving the signaling system offline.

It turned out that the track’s switch was not in its correct position, a situation that was left uncorrected. No signal was operating to inform the engineer of the Amtrak train that the switch was misaligned. Thus the Amtrak train rushed down the side track to crash into the CSX train.

After the Cayce wreck, the NTSB recommended at once that trains proceed with caution while traveling through an area without operational signals. By traveling at slower speeds, a train has a better chance of stopping should a switch not be positioned correctly.

Human Error in Previous Train Wrecks

In the Cayce crash, the Amtrak engineer did nothing wrong; the error was on the part of the CSX work crews. In the past, however, human error, often on the part of engineers, has frequently been the reason for train wrecks that have caused dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries. Here is the toll that some of the more recent train collisions have taken:

  • 18, 2017. Three people were killed and 72 were injured when an Amtrak train carrying more than 80 persons derailed outside of Tacoma, Washington. Several of the train’s cars fell off a highway overpass. According to the NTSB, the train was traveling at 80 mph in an area zoned for 30 mph. The engineer said he did not recall seeing certain milepost markers and therefore did not slow down when he should have.
  • 29, 2016. A NJ Transit commuter train crashed into the Hoboken (NJ) Terminal concourse, killing one person and injuring 108 others. The train abruptly accelerated to more than twice the speed limit upon entering the station. The NTSB revealed that the engineer, who didn’t recall the crash, tested positive for severe sleep apnea.
  • May 12, 2015. An Amtrak train traveling at more than twice the speed limit—106 mph—derailed in Philadelphia, killing eight persons and injuring over 200 others. The NTSB determined that the engineer became distracted and confused about where he was on the sequence of sharp turns that take place while leaving center city Philadelphia. Because of his confusion, he accelerated inappropriately.
  • June 24, 2011. East of Reno, Nevada, a tractor-trailer en route to California rammed into an Amtrak train. Six people died and 15 were injured. The truck driver, who died instantly, was determined to be “inattentive,” according to the NTSB.

In November, 2017, NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt was quoted as saying that “Amtrak’s safety culture is failing and is primed to fail again, until and unless Amtrak changes the way it practices safety management.” We are not in a position to judge whether this statement is true. But when it comes to the Cayce wreck, Amtrak and its employees do not appear to be responsible for the human error that led to tragedy.

When life goes wrong, we fight for what’s right.

If you or someone you love is injured in a train accident, you have all the rights under personal injury law that other injured persons have. You may be able to collect compensation for medical bills, living expenses, pain and suffering, mental anguish, and other costs caused by the train accident.

If you have been involved in a railroad accident, call the Louthian Law Firm as soon as possible. It’s important not to delay — South Carolina accident law can be complex, and the deadline for filing a claim can quickly pass. Our experienced lawyers know how to investigate the facts of a railroad accident to determine whether negligence played a part, and to uncover the sources of possible compensation. Let us start helping you today. For a free initial consultation, call the Louthian Law Firm at 1-803-454-1200 or use our online contact form.