Officials: South Carolina Amtrak Crash Emphasizes Need For Positive Train Control Now

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork)A deadly Amtrak train crash in South Carolina this weekend has ignited renewed debate on GPS-based positive train control that experts say could have prevented it.

As CBS2’s Dave Carlin reported, there have been four fatal Amtrak crashes since the beginning of December. On Sunday, engineer Michael Kempf and conductor Michael Cella were killed when an Amtrak train was diverted off its main track onto a side track – and crashed into a CSX freight train that was sitting parked there.

“The signaling system was inoperative due to system upgrades,” National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt said Monday.

PHOTOS: Deadly Amtrak Crash In South Carolina

Of the four incidents, there were two cases where investigators say it appears people drove vehicles around safety arms at crossings.

In Crozet, Virginia on Wednesday of last week, the vehicle was garbage truck. A chartered Amtrak train carrying members of Congress to a Republican retreat in West Virginia hit the truck and a passenger on the garbage truck – identified as Christopher Foley – was killed.

On Jan. 14 in Whitakers, North Carolina, local pastor the Rev. Eugene Lyons and his wife, Dorothy, were killed in a sport-utility vehicle when an Amtrak train rammed into it, CBS affiliate WNCN-TV reported. They also reportedly drove around the lowered crossing arm.

On Dec. 18, an Amtrak train ran off the rails along a curve during its inaugural run on a route south of Tacoma, Washington, killing three people – passengers Jim Hamre, Zack Willhoite, and Benjamin Gran – and injuring dozens.

In the Washington state incident, the train was going nearly 80 mph, more than twice the speed limit, and the engineer said he did not see signs leading up to a curve.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy talked Monday about train safety concerns in the Tri-State Area.

“My heart goes out to them, and need positive train control, without question,” Murphy said. “We have to get there as fast as we can.”

PTC braking technology coordinates signals between trains, tracks and dispatchers to slow down a train when the engineer fails to respond.

The system was not operational in South Carolina, and it is absent in the Tri-State area.

Federal Railroad Administration statistics from the middle of last year show Amtrak with PTC on 49 percent of locomotives and 67 percent of tracks.

The congressional deadline for full implementation is 2018, with some railroads getting extensions to 2020.

“It’s just too much frequency without enough action,” said U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey).

Booker and other members of Congress from our area said PTC fixes are overdue for a vulnerable system.

“We need all our trains in the country to have PTC, and it will save a lot of lives,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-New York).

The NTSB recovered the intact data recorder from the passenger train in South Carolina. Meanwhile, the NTSB on Tuesday will release findings from the fatal September 2016 NJ TRANSIT train crash in Hoboken Terminal.