Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak derailments’

Amtrak Pays Legal Claims of the Victims of its Accidents Even Though One of its Host Railroad May be at Fault

February 13, 2018

Based on information released by the National Transportation Safety Board, the cause of the collision in South Carolina that left two Amtrak crew members dead seems pretty straightforward.

A switch had been left open, thus routing the southbound Silver Star into a head-on crash with a parked CSX auto rack train.

That might seem to be the fault of a CSX employee although it’s possible the switch could have been tampered with by someone else.

The NTSB is expected to release its report on the cause of the accident more than year from now.

Whatever the cause of the accident, Amtrak likely will wind up paying the money that will go to those filing lawsuits in the wake of the crash.

It won’t matter if CSX is found to have sole responsibility for the accident, Amtrak likely will pay the claims.

The accident on Feb. 4 in Cayce, South Carolina, has trained the spotlight again on a little-known fact about Amtrak’s relationships with its host railroads.

Agreements between the passenger carrier and its host railroads leave Amtrak responsible for paying the legal claims that stem from accidents.

The exact language of those contracts has been kept secret at the insistence of the railroads and Amtrak, say lawyers who have been involved in legal proceedings involving Amtrak and a host railroad.

Amtrak has track use contracts with 30 railroads and all of them are “no fault” agreements.

As explained by an Amtrak executive in a September 2017 seminar hosted by the Federal Highway Administration, that means Amtrak takes full responsibility for its property and passengers and the injuries of anyone hit by a train.

A host railroad is only responsible for its property and employees.

Amtrak manager Jim Blair said at the seminar that this was “a good way for Amtrak and the host partners to work together to get things resolved quickly and not fight over issues of responsibility.”

It doesn’t matter if the host railroad was negligent in causing the crash.

It wasn’t always that way, but things changed after a 1987 crash on the Northeast Corridor at Chase, Maryland, when Amtrak’s New York-bound Colonial struck a Conrail light power move that had run a stop signal.

Sixteen died in the crash. During the investigation, authorities learned that the Conrail engineer was under the influence of marijuana at the time.

Although Conrail paid damages from the resulting lawsuits, the railroad industry began pushing for Amtrak to assume liability for damage claims resulting from accidents, even if the host railroad was at fault for the cause of the accident.

A former member of the Amtrak board of directors said that following the Chase crash, Amtrak faced “a lot of threats from the other railroads.”

The former board member spoke with the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the company’s internal legal discussions are supposed to remain confidential and he doesn’t want to harm his own business relationships by airing a contentious issue.

The Amtrak board member said management gave in to the railroad industry demands because it felt it couldn’t afford to pick a fight.

“The law says that Amtrak is guaranteed access, but it’s up to the goodwill of the railroad as to whether they’ll put you ahead or behind a long freight train,” he said.

The practice of Amtrak paying damages for accidents involving its trains was revealed in a 2004 New York Times series on railroad grade crossing safety.

Following that disclosure, the U.S. Surface Transportation Board ruled that a railroad “cannot be indemnified for its own gross negligence, recklessness, willful or wanton misconduct,” said a 2010 letter by then-Surface Transportation Board chairman Dan Elliott to members of Congress.

That ruling gives Amtrak grounds to pursue gross negligence claims against freight railroads. However, Amtrak has declined to do so.

“If Amtrak felt that if they didn’t want to pay, they’d have to litigate it,” said Elliott, now an attorney at the law firm of Conner & Winters.

The Associated Press reported in the wake of the Cayce crash that it was unable to find any case in which Amtrak pursued a claim against a freight railroad since the Chase incident.

AP said it asked Amtrak, CSX and the Association of American Railroads to identify any example within the last decade of a railroad contributing to a settlement or judgment in a passenger rail accident that occurred on its track. However, none would provide such an example.

Robert L. Potrroff is a member of a Kansas law firm that specializes in railroad accident litigation, told the AP that even in a case in which establishing gross negligence by a freight railroad is possible he has never seen any indication that the railroad and Amtrak are at odds.

“You’ll frequently see Amtrak hire the same lawyers the freight railroads use,” he said.

Another attorney, Ron Goldman, who has represented passenger rail accident victims, said he has long been curious whether it was Amtrak or freight railroads that ended up paying for settlements and judgments.

“The question of how they share that liability is cloaked in secrecy,” he said. “The money is coming from Amtrak when our clients get the check.”

Pottroff said he has long thought that Amtrak should fight its contract railroads on liability matters because it would make safety a larger financial consideration for them. He also said there is a fairness issue at stake.

Following the Chase crash, a federal judge ruled that forcing Amtrak to take financial responsibility for “reckless, wanton, willful, or grossly negligent acts by Conrail” was contrary to good public policy.

Pontroff is representing clients who have sued Amtrak and CSX following last week’s South Carolina crash, but doesn’t expect CSX to pay any settlements or judgments.

“Amtrak has a beautiful defense — the freight railroad is in control of all [of] the infrastructure,” he said. “[But] Amtrak always pays.”

The railroad industry contends that it has ample incentive to keep tracks safe for employees, customers and investors.

“Our goal remains zero accidents,” said CSX spokesman Bryan Tucker in a statement to the Associated Press.

2 Dead, 110 Hurt When Amtrak’s Silver Star Collides Head-on With CSX Auto Rack Train

February 5, 2018

Two Amtrak crew members were killed and more than 100 injured early Sunday morning when the Miami-bound Silver Star was misrouted into the path of a parked CSX freight train.

The accident happened at 2:35 a.m. in Cayce, South Carolina, about 10 miles south of a the train’s previous station stop at Columbia, South Carolina.

Officials said Train No. 91 had 147 aboard and 110 of them were reported to have suffered injuries ranging from minor cuts to broken bones. Nine of those aboard were Amtrak employees.

Killed were Amtrak engineer Michael Kempf, 54, of Savannah, Georgia, and conductor Michael Cella, 36 of Orange Park, Florida.

Dr. Eric Brown, the executive physician for Palmetto Health,  said six people were admitted to hospitals for more severe injuries, including head trauma.

National Transportation Board Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt said on Sunday afternoon that the switch had been manually “lined and locked” to divert the Amtrak train into the freight train.

“Of course key to this investigation is learning why that switch was lined that way because the expectation is the Amtrak would be cleared and would be operating straight down,” Sumwalt said.

Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson said during a conference call with reporters that before the crash the Amtrak crew was communicating with a CSX dispatcher by phone because a signaling system that governs traffic in the area was down for maintenance.

Authorities said investigators are still trying to determine how fast the Silver Star was going at the time of the collision, but the top speed there is 59 mph.

Sumwalt said the CSX train had two locomotives and 34 empty auto rack cars. It had unloaded automobiles on the west side of the main line and then used it to back into a siding on the east side of the main line.

“We were able to see that it was actually literally locked with a padlock to make it lined to go into the siding,” Sumwalt said of the switch on the main.

He said investigators will focus on why the switch wasn’t restored to its normal position before Amtrak No. 91 arrived.

NTSB personnel at the scene retrieved a front-facing video camera from Amtrak P42DC No. 47 and sent to their laboratory in Washington for review. The train’s event data recorder had not been located as of Sunday evening.

“I can tell you there’s catastrophic damage to each of the locomotives,” Sumwalt said. “In fact, I would say that the Amtrak locomotive would be not recognizable at all.”

The consist of the Amtrak train included a P42 locomotive, three Amfleet coaches, an Amfleet cafe lounge, two Viewliner sleepers and a baggage car.

Sumwalt said the crash could have been avoided if positive train control had been in operation at the time.

About 5,000 gallons of diesel fuel was spilled after the collision, but authorities said it posted “no threat to the public at the time.”

Passengers who were not injured or had been treated for injuries were taken to a middle school for shelter.

They were later put aboard chartered buses to continue their journey southward.