A series of catastrophic railway accidents have made news headlines in the past few years, including four fatal accidents involving Amtrak trains since December 2017. The causes of these collisions vary, but investigators have indicated that insufficient safety precautions contributed to many of these deadly incidents. Inadequate training procedures and failure to install safety mechanisms have specifically been identified as significant factors in the crashes involving Amtrak trains.
Human Errors and Train Crashes
According to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), humor error and track defects are the two leading causes of train collisions—more than 70 percent of all train accidents are linked to these factors. The FRA has pinpointed the human errors that are most likely to result in a train crash. They include improperly placing the switch in the incorrect position, failing to lock a track switch, moving rail cars without adequate man protection, failing to ensure that the track is clear, improperly leaving train cars in areas that cause obstructions, and running a damaged track switch. As the agency responsible for implementing safety regulations for rail transportation, the FRA conducts investigations into railway accidents and derailments leading to death, serious injury, and property damage exceeding $1 million.
Amtrak Collisions Reveal Failed Safety Measures
In the Amtrak 501 crash on December 18, 2017, near DuPont, Washington, three people were killed and more than 100 injured when train cars fell from an overpass onto Interstate 5. In the inquiries following the incident, engineers and conductors reported being inadequately trained for the new route that the train was scheduled to travel from Seattle to Portland. Conductors had voiced safety concerns about the lack of route familiarity stemming from an inadequate number of test runs, conducting practice routes at night, and sitting backward during runs, which prevented operators from properly observing landmarks. In addition, many of the crew members admitted that they were not experienced with the new trains used for this route.
The Absence of Safety Mechanism: Positive Train Control
A second factor that investigators believe contributed to the Amtrak train crash near DuPont, Washington was the absence of Positive Train Control (PTC). PTC is a safety protocol that was designed to mitigate the number of railway accidents resulting from human error. PTC, which uses GPS, wireless radio, and computer technology, was scheduled to be installed on all trains by December 2015, but an extension was granted to the railroad industry, which postponed this deadline to 2018. There are indications that this deadline might be extended once again to December 2020.
The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 mandated the implementation of PTC for all passenger trains and some freight trains as a monitoring device to prevent speeding and derailments. The Amtrak train was reported to be traveling at 80 mph in a portion of the track intended for speeds not to exceed 30 mph. Investigators believe that PTC could have prevented the train from exceeding the speed limit.
In another deadly incident, Amtrak Train 91 diverted to a side track and collided with a freight train in South Carolina, killing two Amtrak employees and injuring 116 people. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that the train’s rail switch had been manually programmed to redirect the train to the track where the freight train was situated. The investigation will try to determine why the switch was placed in a position that diverted the train to an occupied track. The agency stated that if the train was equipped with PTC, the automatic braking system could have been engaged. This crash is among several incidents that are believed to have been avoidable with the use of PTC technology.
Lawsuits Related to Train Accidents
Several lawsuits have been filed for damages arising from the Amtrak crash near DuPont, Washington. These cases allege that the accident was caused by faulty crew training and preparation. More lawsuits are likely to follow in other major train collisions. Amtrak has agreed to pay the victims’ medical and incidental expenses, but this may not be enough. Claimants may pursue actions for punitive damages as well if they can demonstrate a blatant disregard for safety. In light of the recent string of catastrophic accidents by a single train operator, the adequacy of safety protocols and training standards should be closely examined.
Levy Konigsberg LLP is a nationally recognized law firm that has handled cases involving catastrophic injuries through complex litigation for more than three decades. If you or a member of your family has been a victim of a train collision, please contact our lawyers for a free consultation by calling (800) 315-3806.