Suspended Safety: The 2018 Cayce (USA) Train Collision
Cayce is a city of 14000 people (as of 2019) located in the center of the US-state of South Carolina, located 10km/6.2mi south-southwest of Columbia and 66km/41mi west of Sumter (both measurements in linear distance).
Cayce lies on the Columbia Subdivision, a 222km/138mi mostly single-tracked non-electrified main line owned by CSX transportation, a Florida-based freight railroad which owns 34.000km/21.000mi of track in the eastern part of the USA. While the Subdivision is mostly used for CSX’ own freight trains they also allow other rail companies to pay for temporary usage of their network, which brings the occasional passenger service onto the CSX-owned tracks.
The trains involved
CSX train Q210–03 was an empty freight train sitting in a siding just south of Cayce, waiting for an oncoming passenger train to pass so it could continue northbound on the single track line. It consisted of several “Autorack” car haulers, enclosed bilevel freight cars for new automobiles. Pulling the train was a double traction of GE AC4400CW diesel locomotives, with number 130 leading and number 36 following. The GE AC4400CW is a six-axle diesel locomotive made by General Electric between 1993 and 2004 for various railway companies. The locomotives measure 22.3m/73ft in length at a base weight of 193 metric tons. GSX had several of their locomotives of this type fitted with an extra 9.1 metric tons of ballast for higher towing capability, but I couldn’t find out if the two locomotives involved had that additional ballast. Each GE AC4400CW has a power output of 3300kW/4400hp (hence the name), enough for up to 120kph/74mph. At the time of the accident two crew members were on the train, both on the leading locomotive.
Travelling southbound through Cayce was the “Silver Star”, a long-distance passenger express train by Amtrak connecting New York City with Miami on a 2449km/1522mi journey. Starting in 1947 the Silver Star runs daily along the eastern coast of the USA, nowadays at up to 201kph/125mph. The train usually consists of 9 passenger cars (plus a baggage car) including the cafe cars and sleeper cars and carries over 375 thousand passengers each year. At the time of the accident the train carried 8 crew members and 141 passengers.
Pulling the Silver Star on the non-electrified part of its route was Amtrak’s GE P42DC number 47. The P42DC is a four-axle diesel locomotive from General Electric’s “Genesis”-series and a modernized version of the P40DC introduced in 1992. The locomotives measure 21m/69ft in length at a weight of 121.7 metric tons and can be easily identified by their relatively streamlined design compared to most American locomotives of their time. The P42DC is powered by a turbocharged V16 diesel engine with 175 liters of displacement producing 3170kW/4250hp for a top speed of 177kph/110mph.
On the fourth of February 2018 at approximately 2:20am an empty CSX Autorack-train is parked on the Silica storage track, a 1.5km/0.9mi siding south of Cayce adjacent to an auto lot. Its main use was for trains to pass one another or for freight trains to wait for a clear track in the auto lot and load cars. The northern end of the siding consisted of a set of manually operated points merging the siding into the Columbia Subdivision, usually the signals north of the siding would tell a southbound train about the status of the points.
Around the time of the accident construction crews were at work in the area upgrading the signaling system and implementing a modern train control system. The work required part of the signaling system to be temporarily disabled (“signal suspension”), including the signals for the siding. Workers had finished work for the day at 7pm, leaving the signal suspension in place as they planned to continue the next day. This in itself is nothing out of the ordinary, and there are set rules in place to ensure safe operations in the affected area to make sure everything is safe.
At 2:09am Amtrak’s Silver Star stops at a red signal shortly after departing Columbia station, which marks the edge of the area affected by the signal suspension. The conductor, who was riding in the cab to assist the driver through the area, radios the CSX-employed dispatcher and receives permission to disregard the red signal and enter the affected area at 2:20am. In the meantime the crew of the CSX freight train had finished assembling their train in the siding and filled out the associated paperwork before waiting for their ride to go home. While they wait the driver asks the conductor if he’s sure he moved the points at the northern end back to the straight position rather than having them set for the siding. The conductor later recalled being sure that he had adjusted it, but decided to ask the driver to turn on the train’s headlights so they could check regardless. The driver followed the suggestion, but when the headlights didn’t reach the points the men decided that they didn’t need to walk over and check, in part due to the risk of being struck by the incoming train, because they certainly had not forgotten to adjust the points.
At 2:27:21am the Silver Star reaches the northern end of the siding at 90kph/56mph. The data-logger of the locomotive shows the driver laying on the horn as the train approximately reached the points which, fatally, send it into the siding. It’s assumed that the crew noticed that they were headed for another train. Three seconds later the throttle lever is moved to idle, another two seconds later the locomotive dumps air pressure as an emergency stop has been initiated. It’s all for nothing. At 2:27:27am the Silver Star crashes into the stationary freight train at 85kph/53mph, 660 feet within the siding. The CSX-crew saw the train heading for them and abandoned their locomotive at the last second, the Amtrak-crew remained on board and didn’t stand a chance. The impact obliterates the forward half of the Amtrak-locomotive, deflecting it off the leading CSX-locomotive to the left and throwing it on it’s side. Jumping off the locomotive (driver) respectively running to the rear (conductor) saved the freight train crew’s life as the Amtrak-locomotive mounts the frame of CSX #130, destroying much of the forward section. The two men aboard Amtrak #47 are the sole victims of the collision, 161 people are injured with 92 people requiring hospitalization and 9 being severely injured.
The assistant conductor aboard the Silver Star recalls being thrown around the interior of the bistro car as most of the passenger train derailed, once the train came to a rest he tried and failed to contact the locomotive on his radio. He manages to leave the train and makes his way to the front, realizing quickly that there’s no way his coworkers survived. All but one of the passenger cars derailed, with the fourth, the bistro car, folding in half as the train in front of it stopped while the rest of the cars pushed from behind. The folding damage causes the car to act like a spring, absorbing enough energy for the remaining cars to come to a stop derailed but largely intact.
Responders start arriving minutes after the accident, thanks to the assistant conductor notifying dispatch of the accident before he even left the train. The response includes a specialized hazardous material team, but 19000l/5000US gallons of oil and fuel still seep into the soil before they can contain the leaks on the destroyed locomotives. Within a few hours all passengers were accounted for and those requiring further medial care had been taken to the surrounding hospitals, leaving the site to the investigators by the early morning.
Examinations of the trains show no sign of any preexisting defect, both the propulsion-systems and brake-systems were in perfect working order as far as investigators can tell from the mangled remains. The data-logger is recovered from the Amtrak locomotive’s wreckage while the freight train’s crew is interrogated along with the dispatcher on duty at the time and the surviving Amtrak crew members, and when the points are found in perfect working order too the cause of the whole accident starts to come clear.
The direct origin of the disaster is negligence by the CSX-crew, especially the conductor who failed to properly adjust the points from the siding back to the main line after he and his coworker backed their train into the siding through the points to combine it with waiting freight cars. In regular operation this would’ve affected the signals north of the points and shown up as such at the dispatch center, but due to the signal suspension in effect in the area that night this doesn’t happen. The signals north of the siding are out of order, which is why the Amtrak-train had to stop at the edge of the affected area and ask for permission. It was down to the dispatcher to keep track of each train entering and departing the area without help from the signaling system.
It becomes obvious that the behavior of the dispatcher and the CSX’ conductor broke the “no single point of failure”-principle, which says that railways have to be operated so if any single point in a chain of operations fails this can not lead to a catastrophic accident. The dispatcher had failed to properly keep track of trains and points within the area affected by the signal suspension, creating a single point of failure, which allowed the conductor’s failure to ensure proper setting of the points (another single point of failure) to cause a catastrophic accident. Had the conductor done his job properly the dispatcher’s failure would’ve had no severe consequences, and had he worked properly and made sure the points were set correctly he would’ve likely caught the conductor’s error.
Amtrak President Richard Anderson didn’t even wait for the investigation to confirm the theory, appearing before journalists shortly after the accident and saying CSX was solely to blame as they were responsible for both the signaling system and the dispatching/observation of trains. Meanwhile CSX Transportation expressed their condolences in a public release but chose not to refer to a possible cause of the accident. Donald Trump, at the time president of the USA, similarly expressed his condolences via Twitter while he was on vacation.
Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board, the institution conducting the investigation) expressed that PTC, a GPS-based signaling and train control system, could have avoided the accident as it would’ve kept the trains from getting to the same location in the first place, independently from signals. However, the installation of PTC and similar systems had been an uphill battle in the USA for years, often being described as a dragged out battle with endless discussions over the cost with only mixed or spotted success. The signal suspension in the area, in tragic irony, had been performed in order to install PTC in the area, meaning a few days later the same situation would not have had the same results. After the accident Amtrak promised to expedite the installation of PTC on their entire network and fleet, putting an end to the endless discussions and localized successes as far as they can help it. Similarly, CSX promised to speed up the installation of the system on their network and trains.
The NTSB’s report finishes with several recommendations, split into new and reiterated ones. In the new recommendations CSX was advised to develop a device or system that eliminates the possibility of an employee forgetting critical tasks like resetting a set of points or ensuring a parked train doesn’t protrude into a passing track, along with improving the safety-aspect of their training for new and existing crews regarding both the operation of trains as well as all other general equipment. Meanwhile all hosting railroads (companies who own rail lines they let other companies use) received the recommendation of matching Amtrak’s effort to increase the safety-level by installing compatible signaling-systems on their network.
In the reiterated recommendations the NTSB told the FRA (Federal Railroad Administration) to further research options to reduce the risk of injury to train-passengers, such as the reduction/better securing of possible projectiles. They were also asked to ensure that findings from past accidents would play a significant role in improving occupant safety in new rolling stock. Lastly, they were urged to motivate other railroads in following what they recommended to CSX and reduce the chances of an employee failing to perform critical tasks.
After the on-site investigation concluded Amtrak #47 was broken up for scrap at the site while CSX #130 was partially disassembled and towed to a nearby maintenance facility along with #36 where the former was cut up and disposed of. The other locomotive was repaired and returned to service at some point in 2020. The total financial damage of the accident is rumored to be at around 22.2 million Euros/25.4 million USD.
The AC4400CW is still in full service with CSX for the foreseeable future, with over 500 locomotives of the type in service. However, a modernization-program of the older locomotives in the fleet has begun, with the modernized units being referred to as CM44AC. Meanwhile Amtrak is in the process of retiring the P42DC from it’s long-distance services, replacing them with 75 new Siemens ALC-42 “Charger” locomotives by 2024, a specially adapted version of the Charger for long-distance routes. The new locomotives come with improved occupant safety and up to date train control systems to avoid the kind of accident that took place at Cayce. I couldn’t find any record of a trial following the accident, so the only consequences for the CSX-crew were presumably of internal nature.