Tragic South Carolina Train Wreck — How Preventable Was It?

by Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley

Reports are developing that the recent and tragic crash of an AmTrak train, running on CSX rails, might have been avoided if a safety feature called a “positive train control” (PTC) had been employed at the time. This is technology what one of our firm’s partners wrote about on May 14, 2015 and a safety feature that had been mandated by Congress since 2008.

As Jack Hill discussed, Congress passed the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008.  It mandated that positive train control be able to prevent:

  • Train-to-train collisions
  • Derailments caused by excessive speed
  • Unauthorized incursions by trains onto sections of track where maintenance activities are taking place
  • Movement of a train through a track switch left in the wrong position​.

So, if Congress mandated this safety technology as far back as 2008 and our firm was talking about it long before Jack Hill’s article in 2015, why was it not there to stop the most recent tragedy near Cayce, South Carolina?

Some of the major railroad corporations told Congress they needed more time and Congress gave it to them in 2015, by granting an extension. Among the railroads claiming they needed an extension (7) years after they were mandated to deploy the safety technology PTC? You guessed it, CSX; the same corporation who might have prevented the tragedy in South Carolina had they not dragged their feet for (9) years.

Has the technology not been fully deployed because it is not ready for deployment? No.

After (9) years less than half of CSX’s rails have positive train control deployed on them. It is about money; bottom line profits.

Was PTC deployed at the location of the current train wreck? We do not know because CSX and AmTrak have not responded to those questions. AmTrak’s Chief Executive Officer told the Post & Courier Newspaper:

“The only way this train gets on the (side track) is if that switch is thrown,” said Amtrak chief executive Richard Anderson, who called on railroads Sunday to finish developing the system this year.”

CSX finance chief, Frank Lonegro, told investors last month CSX will not have full implementation of PTC technology until 2020. That puts safety technology in place 12 years after it was mandated. This safety timeline should be unacceptable and it is much too late for the several train disasters we have seen over the last several years.

Our firm has extensive experience with both CSX and AmTrak in terms of safety compliance and maintenance issues. Not our first or last fight with railroads, but certainly a memorable and righteous one was the $50 million punitive damage verdict we obtained for our client Angel Palank for the loss of her husband and her children’s father because of conduct by CSX:

“On July 31, 1991, eight people, including Paul Palank, were killed in Lugoff, S.C., when the last five passenger cars of a Miami-to-Washington Amtrak train switched to a side track and smashed into nine parked freight cars. Federal Safety Regulations require railroads to carefully inspect main line switches at least twice a week. An extensive investigation revealed that a faulty main line switch, which had been broken for at least 7 months, opened, causing the train to derail. CSX owns the Lugoff tracks and approximately 30,000 miles of track between New York and Miami. Records show that an audit done by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), as early as 1987, showed gross deficiencies in CSX’s staffing and inspection practices.”

Chris Searcy and Greg Barnhart have made it a driving force to hold the railway industry’s “feet to the fire” every time they have been given the opportunity to fight for a client against the railroads. Each time it seems as if making decisions that place profits before safety, more often than not, drives the industry in its decisions.

We can only speculate how many lives and injured might have been spared had the railroad industry deployed positive train control (PTC) on a schedule that had the soonest safety of passengers in mind.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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