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Railroad was installing 'Positive Train Control' before deadly Amtrak crash

by Tim Stelloh /  / Updated 
Image: Investigators make their way around the train wreckage under the Charleston Highway overpass where two trains collided
Investigators make their way around the train wreckage under the Charleston Highway overpass where two trains collided early Sunday morning on Feb. 4, 2018 in Cayce, South Carolina.Bob Leverone / Getty Images

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Signals were down on a South Carolina railroad where a deadly crash occurred on Sunday morning because a computerized system designed to prevent such incidents was being installed there, federal authorities said Monday.

National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt said the upgrades to a “Positive Train Control” system left the red, green and yellow lights that govern train transportation inoperable.

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Had that system been fully operational, Sumwalt said earlier, the Amtrak passenger train traveling from New York City to Miami likely would have avoided the parked CSX freight train just outside South Carolina’s capital city.

Related: ‘Positive Train Control’ ordered by Congress, but not yet in place

“That's what it's designed to do,” he said.

The Amtrak train crashed head-on into a CSX locomotive around 2:30 a.m. Sunday, after a manually-operated rail switch diverted the train from the main tracks onto a “siding” where the CSX train was parked, Sumwalt said.

The Florida-based railroad company owns the tracks the passenger train was traveling on.

Sumwalt said Monday that it was unclear why the switch was left in that position. Federal investigators interviewed CSX train crew members on Monday, while Amtrak personnel would be interviewed Tuesday, he said.

Two Amtrak employees were killed in the crash: engineer Michael Kempf, 54, of Savannah, Georgia, and conductor Michael Cella, 36, of Orange Park, Florida. More than 100 people were also injured.

Related: Brother of Amtrak employee who died said sibling worried about safety

Steve Shelton, director for emergency preparedness at Palmetto Health System, where 62 passengers were hospitalized, said Monday that six patients remained there. Two were in critical condition and two were listed as serious, he said.

Image: An Amtrak train, bottom right, and a CSX freight train, top left, crashed in Cayce
An Amtrak train, bottom right, and a CSX freight train, top left, crashed in Cayce, South Carolina on Feb. 4, 2018.Jeff Blake / AP

Sumwalt said that data from a recorder on the Amtrak train showed that it wasn’t speeding when it hit the CSX locomotive. The train’s horn sounded just seven seconds before the crash, while its brakes and emergency brake were activated five seconds and three seconds before impact.

The 50-mph, locomotive to locomotive crash pushed the CSX train back 15 feet, he said.

Positive Train Control was mandated after a deadly train crash in Los Angeles led to the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008. The system is intended to function like GPS, connecting trains with the tracks they run on, though it’s been dogged by high costs and technological hurdles.

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