LEDE-PRINT-crop-DSC_0383.jpg (copy)

An Amtrak passenger train slammed into a freight train in February outside Columbia, killing two and injuring dozens others. Moments before the fatal collision, the engineer of the parked CSX train began to question whether his partner had made a mistake. File/Jonathan Hinely/Special to The Post and Courier

Moments before a passenger train slammed into parked locomotive outside Columbia, a pair of railroad employees asked their co-worker a question that should have prevented the fatal collision:

Are you sure the track is set for another train to pass by?

The engineer of the parked train asked his partner twice because he thought it was odd how quickly he’d finished his work. A train dispatcher in Florida remembered double-checking with the crew in South Carolina "to play on the safe side."

Over and over, they were told everything was OK. On his word, they gave a passing Amtrak train the go-ahead to come through. They were relying on the memory of one man, who was sure he had set everything correctly — until he saw a train careening toward him.

A switch on the tracks pushed the passenger train onto another set of rails, which are used for storage. It should have kept the Amtrak locomotive moving straight ahead on the main line. Fewer than 10 seconds after it started to turn, the trains crashed.

A federal probe into the crash remains open, but interviews released this week by federal investigators describe in new detail how a single mistake caused South Carolina’s deadliest train crash in more than a decade. And they describe the lingering doubts railroad workers had moments before the crash, which killed two Amtrak crew members and sent scores of passengers to the hospital.

Even after the impact, the conductor responsible for setting the switches that move trains from track to track couldn’t believe his mistake. His partner found him pinned against a locomotive, doused in diesel fuel and "swearing he did get the switch set."

A day after the February crash, the man’s partner, engineer Mark James, would struggle to explain to investigators why he had a gut feeling that something was wrong.

Even after asking the conductor if the switch was set for the passenger train to stay on the main line, he wasn’t sure. He even tried to shine his train’s headlights on the switch to confirm its  position, but they didn’t stretch far enough.

So James decided to go see for himself. They were waiting on a ride home, so he told the conductor, Michael Vargo, that he was going to stretch his legs. As he started to climb off the train, he saw the Amtrak train’s lights coming around the bend.

Vargo would also struggle to explain what happened. He’d been switching the rails all night long as he and James pieced together a few dozen car carriers into a train headed for the Upstate. At the end of his shift, he was sure he’d gotten to everything, but one switch had apparently slipped his mind.

Minutes after he'd assured his co-workers that everything was fine, he began to think he might die. If the force of the crash didn’t crush him, he thought, the diesel covering his body might still catch fire.

The two men were working in unusual conditions. Traffic signals in Cayce weren’t working because the equipment was being upgraded, so they had to call in their moves manually. If the signals were working properly, they would have flagged the switch mistake.

Vargo told the National Transportation Safety Board that he wasn’t used to the manual system, and it’s easy to forget to call out every switch you change, which can lead to mistakes.

We're starting a weekly newsletter about the business stories that are shaping Charleston and South Carolina. Get ahead with us - it's free.

That sort of human error isn’t so uncommon. Federal data show that switching mistakes cause an accident somewhere in America every three days. Such oversights usually happen in the relatively safe confines of rail yards, but last year, they happened 21 times on main-line rails and side tracks, where mistakes are costlier.

"It was like the stars lined up in the wrong way that night," Vargo told investigators. "The signals were down or they would have caught that. And the switch was lined into the siding. I mean, the one time I ever forgot it. I mean, that must have happened. I mean, I can't — I mean, a ghost didn't do it."

CSX declined to comment on what its employees said, citing an ongoing investigation, and it said it doesn’t answer questions about specific employees. 

NTSB officials raised concerns Tuesday about whether a focus on running the railroad more efficiently might have caused safety lapses at CSX, and they chided regulators for not imposing emergency rules that could head off another fatal mistake.

CSX said it took the agency’s comments "very seriously" and had stepped up its focus on safety in recent months.

The crash has triggered one new policy in America’s passenger rail system: Amtrak says it’s being more careful when traffic signals aren’t working, sometimes cancelling service or putting passengers on buses to avoid risky areas.

And when Amtrak trains move on tracks without working signals, railroad officials say they’re telling crews to slow down when they get near switches — in case someone makes a mistake.

Reach Thad Moore at 843-937-5703. Follow him on Twitter @thadmoore.