An Amtrak train crash in Cayce, South Carolina, has killed two Amtrak employees and injured around 100 people. Reports indicate a broken switch may have caused the passenger train to crash into a freight train, which was parked on a side track. The crash—one of at least three fatal Amtrak crashes in two months—has renewed calls for increased train safety and shined a spotlight on reportedly weak safety measures at Amtrak. Once more, officials have highlighted the lack of Positive Train Control measures as one of the reasons this deadly train accident was not prevented.
Silver Star Amtrak Train on Wrong Tracks Crashes into CSX Train
In the early morning hours of Sunday, February 4, 2018, an Amtrak Silver Star train carrying almost 150 people from New York to Miami traveled through a switchyard in South Carolina, 10 miles south of Columbia. At 2:45 a.m., as it moved through the switchyard, the Amtrak train somehow wound up on the wrong tracks and ran into a parked CSX freight train. The Amtrak train was moving at around 59 miles per hour when it slammed into the parked train.
Two men who worked for Amtrak—the engineer and the conductor—died in the crash, while another 116 suffered injuries, some critical. So many passengers were injured that two buses were brought in to move the injured to four local hospitals, while a triage area was set up at the crash scene.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is investigating the South Carolina Amtrak crash and is expected to be on the accident scene for at least five days.
Amtrak Train 91 Crash Victims Identified
Authorities identified the men who died in the South Carolina Amtrak crash as:
- Engineer Michael Kempf (54 years old) from Savannah, Georgia, and
- Conductor Michael Cella (36 years old) from Orange Park, Florida.
Rich Kempf, the brother of Michael Kempf, said recent crashes left his brother worried about dying while on the rails.
“Me and him always talked about this,” Rich Kempf said. “He was voicing concerns about getting killed.”
Passengers Describe Terror After Amtrak and CSX Train Collision in Cayce
Terrified passengers recalled the moments following the crash as they waited for rescue.
“It was chaos,” said Andre Neblett, whose mother, Tronia Dorsey, was on the train when it crashed. “She said she was just waiting on somebody to get her.”
“I had just come out of the restroom when I felt it,” said passenger Sherry Call. “Sounded like somebody shredding aluminum cans. It was terrifying.”
Passenger Eric Larkin told reporters he thought he was dead after his seat came loose in the accident, throwing him into the chairs in front of him. Meanwhile, Samuel Rodriguez told The New York Times that the train filled with smoke and the sounds of screaming.
“I saw a kid bleeding all over, his skull was showing, and his mother was in shock,” Rodriguez said. “So I run to the back, try to get to the bathroom. Bathroom’s tore up, toilet bowl’s out, everything’s a disaster, and I’m like, ‘Wow, I’m still walking.'”
Amtrak Train Safety Called into Question Again
The South Carolina Amtrak crash is at least the third fatal crash involving Amtrak in two months, leading safety advocates to question Amtrak’s safety protocols. Amtrak appeared to blame CSX for the accident, noting that the train would not have been on the wrong tracks if a switch were operating properly. The National Transportation Safety Board has confirmed that the switch was locked, so trains were sent to the siding. Safety experts argue that if positive train control had been operational along that section of track, the accident would have been avoided.
Among its safety features, positive train control (PTC) reportedly prevents two trains from traveling on the same tracks at the same time. It can also stop or slow trains that are moving too quickly. For positive train control to work properly, however, both the train and the tracks must have the system implemented. In cases where one railroad owns the tracks but another uses those tracks, the companies must work together to ensure all systems are working.
“An operational PTC is designed to prevent this type of incident,” said Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
“[Amtrak and CSX] will point their fingers at each other because there’s no accountability,” said Michael Callanan, a friend to Michael Cella. “I want his legacy to be that they improve safety on the railroad because of what happened Sunday.”
Third Fatal Train Accident Involving Amtrak in Weeks
The train crash in South Carolina is the third fatal crash involving an Amtrak train since December 18. On that day, an Amtrak train derailed in Washington State, killing three people and injuring dozens more. On January 31, an Amtrak train carrying Republican members of Congress collided with a dump truck, killing one person and injuring six.
“How many more lives need to be lost? How many people need suffer physical injury and extreme mental distress, and how many families need to be torn apart by the anguish that follows every railroad disaster—before we realize that Amtrak gives only lip service to safety,” said attorney Ron Goldman of Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman. “Passenger service by rail should be among the safest forms of travel, yet somehow Amtrak has made it deadly. We need to raise the alarm that safety must be elevated to a genuine primary goal, and that those in charge must be held accountable.”