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NTSB Chairmen Robert Sumwalt says this month’s fatal Amtrak crash outside Columbia could have been prevented by a system known as positive train control. File/John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier John A. Carlos II ‘Designed to prevent this’

Federal investigators haven’t issued their verdict on what exactly went wrong in Cayce. But already, the National Transportation Safety Board has reiterated a call that it has made for nearly three decades: Train safety technology needs an upgrade, an automatic-braking system known as positive train control, or PTC.

The technology apparently was not in place when the Amtrak locomotive smashed into a CSX Corp. train this month. Sumwalt says signals in the area were down for maintenance because CSX was installing equipment for the automatic-braking system.


The Association of American Railroads says the industry has made progress toward those recommendations, pouring $9 billion into the system. Jessica Kahanek, a spokeswoman for the freight rail trade group, said railroads are working on getting positive train control right and will meet Congress’s deadlines.

They have made a sizable investment but it’s no good unless it’s finished, which was the important takeaway for me from the South Carolina tragedy, Schiavo said. Unless it all works together, all that investment is for naught. Twice a year

Investigators have found that a system which puts the brakes on speeding trains and checks for switches set the wrong way would have prevented several major crashes. Those accidents have done tens of millions in damage, killed dozens of workers and passengers and led to stunningly close calls for even more.

In the past decade, the NTSB has cited the lack of PTC at least 20 times in its investigations, according to The Post and Courier review of its reports — in Washington state and Wyoming, Chicago and California, New Jersey and North Carolina.

The NTSB said the system would have stopped two light-rail trains from colliding in downtown Boston, injuring 68. And it would have stopped a commuter train in New York from blowing through a 30-mph speed limit because its engineer was sleeping, killing four. And it would have kept a train in Indiana from speeding through a stop signal, causing an accident that led to a three-train pile-up.

Investigators have identified these problems on long-haul freight lines, commuter train and local transit systems. They have cited it in investigations of fatal crashes and close calls, like the time a crew in Missouri jumped from a speeding train just seconds before it T-boned another.

The National Transportation Safety Board said positive train control could have prevented a train collision in Missouri in 2012. The red train’s crew didn’t follow signals telling them to stop. They survived the crash by jumping from their locomotive seconds before impact. Provided Provided Switch problems

The PTC system has gotten lots of attention lately because it’s supposed to slow down speeding trains. It has been in the news in recent months after NTSB officials said the technology could have put the brakes on an Amtrak train speeding outside Tacoma, Wash., before it skidded off the rails, killing three.

The railroad industry says it has tamped down on those human errors during the past decade, but federal records show that switching issues have caused 132 accidents in the past year. The braking system is supposed to stop trains from going through switches set the wrong way.

People do get distracted, and there are mistakes that are made, and having a safety redundancy system is important, said Robert Chipkevich, the NTSB’s former director of railroad investigations. If you don’t have a redundant system in place to prevent an accident, when a mistake is made or a person is distracted, the result is an accident.

And while the majority of those accidents happen in the relatively safe confines of rail yards, the mental mistakes that cause trains to bump or derail in the yard are the same kind that can be disastrous on a main track, said Warren Flatau, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, which oversees the nation’s train system.

Workers parked their train outside a factory in town, and, after a long shift, they forgot to throw the switch that led there. Later that night, the switch put a train carrying chlorine gas on a collision course with the one they had parked. The collision and gas fumes killed nine and hospitalized 75 others.