The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has issued three urgent railroad safety recommendations amid its investigation of a deadly collision between an Amtrak train and a CSX freight train in South Carolina earlier this month and another ongoing train accident investigation.
The NTSB, which is charged with investigating major transportation-related accidents, makes recommendations for safety improvements based on its findings, but it does not have the authority to enact or enforce new rules. Instead, the recommendations are issued to the proper regulatory authorities.
On Thursday, Feb. 15, the NTSB issued one urgent safety recommendation to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) based on its investigation of the Feb. 8 Amtrak crash and two urgent safety recommendations stemming from its probe of a June 10, 2017, Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) accident that killed a road worker in New York.
Investigators looking into the Amtrak crash found that on the day before the accident, CSX personnel suspended the traffic control signal system to install updates for the implementation of positive train control (PTC), a GPS-guided system that eliminates human error by automatically slowing or stopping trains when needed.
The lack of signals required railroad dispatchers to use track warrants to move trains through the work zone. In the Amtrak-CSX crash and a similar 2016 collision in Wyoming, the safe movement of the trains through a work zone with signal suspension or “dark territory” as it’s called in the industry, depended upon proper switch alignment.
According to the NTSB, “the switch alignment relied on error-free manual work, which was not safeguarded by either technology or supervision, creating a single point of failure.”
In light of these safety lapses, the NTSB seeks an emergency order through the Federal Railroad Administration requiring restricted speed for trains passing through signal suspensions and track switches.
NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said that the installation of positive train control systems was not to blame for the deadly South Carolina crash.
“While the collision remains under investigation, we know that signal suspensions are an unusual operating condition, used for signal maintenance, repair and installation, that have the potential to increase the risk of train collisions. That risk was not mitigated in the Cayce collision. Our recommendation, if implemented, works to mitigate that increased risk,” Mr. Sumwalt said.
In its investigation of the LIRR accident, NTSB investigators identified improper practices and noncompliance with safety standards by LIRR roadway workers who were working on and near the tracks.
According to the NTSB, the LIRR workers failed to clear the track as required when trains approached and their “predetermined place of safety” also did not comply with LIRR rules and procedures.
The NTSB said it is concerned that “LIRR management is overlooking and therefore normalizing noncompliance with safety rules and regulations for proper clearing of tracks” when needed.
The agency’s two urgent safety recommendations to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) call for it to audit LIRR’s use of “train approach warning” for worker protection and to implement “corrective action for deficiencies” found through the audit.