Signal System Was Down for Safety Upgrades Before Fatal Amtrak Crash, Authorities Say

Authorities investigated the scene of a fatal Amtrak train crash in Cayce, S.C., on Sunday.

A maintenance crew working on a railway in South Carolina on Sunday had disabled its signal system to install new technology meant to prevent crashes when an Amtrak train slammed into a freight locomotive on the track, killing two people, federal investigators said on Monday.

The crew had taken the system down in order to install technology known as positive train control, which can automatically slow a locomotive to prevent the very kind of crash that occurred, said Robert L. Sumwalt, the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. On Sunday, Mr. Sumwalt criticized the lack of the safety system on the track, saying that the technology could have prevented the accident, which killed an Amtrak engineer and a conductor.

With the railway’s regular signal system inoperable, the Amtrak train would have navigated the track with help from a dispatcher at CSX, which owns and operates the railway in Cayce, S.C., just south of Columbus, Mr. Sumwalt said. Federal investigators interviewed the dispatcher on Monday but did not disclose what was said.

Still, Mr. Sumwalt cautioned against casting all the blame for the accident on the crew that flipped the manual switch. He said that the Amtrak engineer on the train should have also noticed that the switch was positioned in the wrong direction.

The investigation into the cause of the crash is far from over, and Mr. Sumwalt said that investigators would quite likely remain at the scene through the weekend. Nonetheless officials released some new details on Monday about the moments before Amtrak Train 91 rammed into the freight locomotive, the latest passenger train crash to deepen concerns about public rail safety in the United States.

At a news conference on Monday afternoon, Mr. Sumwalt said investigators were focusing on a manual rail switch that caused the passenger train to divert onto the same side track as the locomotive operated by CSX. Before the crash, a CSX crew helping to move the freight train had flipped the switch and locked it in that direction with a padlock, he said.

“We want to find out why this switch was in that position,” Mr. Sumwalt said.

When the Amtrak train traveling south reached the switch about 2:30 a.m. on Sunday, the passenger train veered off the main railway and onto the side track. It is unclear how much time the Amtrak crew had to avoid the crash, but the train’s event data recorder showed a frantic but unsuccessful effort to avoid a head-on accident.

In the seven seconds before the crash, the crew sounded the horn, flipped the throttle to idle and hit the emergency brake. Those efforts in the final seconds slowed the train from 56 miles per hour, which is below the speed limit, to 50 m.p.h. at the moment of the crash, Mr. Sumwalt said.

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