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Amtrak train crash that killed 2 in SC could have been avoided, NTSB chief says

A train switch that was apparently locked in the wrong position is being blamed by federal investigators for a train collision early Sunday that killed two people and injured up to 116 others near Cayce.

Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said Sunday afternoon that there’s no evidence of foul play, although the FBI is assisting in the investigation.

Sumwalt said the accident could have been avoided if a federal safety system, under consideration for years, had been in place. The system is supposed to slow down trains when a problem lies ahead on a track. He called the damage to the trains “catastrophic.’’

Sumwalt made his remarks after an Amtrak train slammed into a stationary CSX freight train at 2:35 a.m. in Lexington County. An NTSB official declined to say if the accident was the fault of CSX, but noted that CSX is responsible for maintaining proper track position. CSX is the owner of the track but Amtrak uses the line.

A switch was aligned and padlocked to divert the Amtrak train onto a side track, where the CSX freight train was parked. The train, estimated to be traveling at more than 50 mph but within the 59 mph speed limit, then slammed into the line of two locomotives and 34 freight cars, officials said. Sumwalt said there was “no way” the Amtrak train could have stopped to avoid a collision.

“The key to this investigation is learning why that switch was lined that way,’’ Sumwalt said during a packed news conference attended by media from across the country. He said “our goal is to find out not only what happened, but why it happened so we can prevent it from happening again.’’

Sumwalt, a Columbia native in town when the accident occurred, said a safety system known as “positive train control’’ could have saved lives in the accident, as it could with other train wrecks across the country. The NTSB has been trying for more than 40 years to have such controls implemented, he said.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration, Congress required some railroad mainlines, including those with commuter rail passenger service, to fully implement positive train control by the end of 2015. But Congress extended the deadline by at least three years to December 31, 2018, according to the FRA.

Such technology acts similar to a braking system, to prevent crashes. If signals ahead indicate a problem, the positive train control is supposed to slow down the locomotive remotely.

“Everyone of these accidents, in fact, could have been prevented’’ by positive train control, he said. “How many years have we been calling for PTC?’

Positive train control is a system designed to compensate for human error, such as leaving a train switch in the wrong position, officials said. In this case, the switch was locked, but in the wrong position, Sumwalt said.

“This is indeed a tragic human error,’’ Sumwalt said after the press conference.

Sumwalt said NTSB investigators would likely be in the Midlands throughout the week. Sumwalt said video from the Amtrak train had been recovered and sent to Washington for analysis, but two data recorders in each train had not been recovered.

Sunday’s news conference provided some new details of the tragedy. Among them was the revelation the freight train was there to unload automobiles before parking for the night on the side track. Sumwalt also said the Amtrak train had nine crew members. Two of the crew died in the wreck.

During the coming days, the NTSB will examine whether the crew of the train had taken required drug and alcohol tests and whether crew members had been given proper rest. The agency will also look at cell phone records and examine the signal system, visible lighting on the tracks that warn of problems ahead.

The latter could be an issue.

Amtrak President Richard Anderson said earlier Sunday that the signal system was down when the wreck occurred.

Anderson said dispatchers at CSX were manually routing trains around 2:45 a.m. Sunday. He says he would defer to National Transportation Safety Board investigators to determine what role that played in the wreck that also sent 116 people to the hospital, most with minor injuries.

Speaking in a phone conference call with reporters, Anderson says the crash of the train heading from New York to Miami shows why the U.S. needs to install positive train control by year's end.

The system is in place in the Northeast, but Anderson says private companies who run the tracks Amtrak uses elsewhere have in the past asked for extensions to deadlines.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.