Every three days, somewhere in America, someone makes a mistake with the switches that control where trains go. And those mistakes cause accidents — usually because a locomotive is put on the wrong tracks.
Every seven days, a train jumps the rails or collides into another because it's going too fast.
Taken together, these errors occur every other day — a lapse in judgment or a simple oversight with consequences that are costly at best and fatal at worst.
They're the kinds of mistakes that could be prevented by an automatic-braking system that has been stalled for years, rail safety advocates say. The mistakes have led to some of the nation’s worst rail accidents — including this month's fatal Amtrak collision outside Columbia.
Most don't make the news. They're the railroad equivalents of fender benders, avoiding much scrutiny from federal investigators and the public.
But federal accident data suggests the root causes of many of the nation's highest-profile rail disasters stem from routine mistakes.
They're the same errors that caused Amtrak's fatal derailments in Washington state last year and in Philadelphia in 2015. They also caused the deadliest railroad accident in South Carolina's recent history, when a train carrying chlorine gas smashed into parked rail cars in Graniteville 13 years ago.
And they appear to have played a role in Cayce earlier this month when a switch set the wrong direction sent nearly 150 people on their way from New York to Miami careening onto the wrong track. The Amtrak crew was following the speed limit but had only a few seconds to react before smashing into a parked train.
Two people died in the impact, and more than 100 were sent to local hospitals.
'Designed to prevent this'
Federal investigators haven't issued their verdict on what exactly went wrong in Cayce. But already, the National Transportation Safety Board has reiterated a call that it has made for nearly three decades: Train safety technology needs an upgrade, an automatic-braking system known as "positive train control," or PTC.
"An operational PTC system is designed to prevent this type of accident," said Robert Sumwalt, the NTSB's chairman and a Columbia native, in the days after the crash.
The NTSB first called for positive train control in 1990 and Congress first mandated the technology a decade ago, giving railroads until 2015 to install it on tracks that carry passengers or hazardous materials.
That deadline was postponed because the rail industry said it needed more time to install new equipment on signals, switches and locomotives. It could take until 2020 before the nation's railroads meet the safety requirements.
The technology apparently was not in place when the Amtrak locomotive smashed into a CSX Corp. train this month. Sumwalt says signals in the area were down for maintenance because CSX was installing equipment for the automatic-braking system.
CSX and South Carolina's other major railroad, Norfolk Southern, say they plan to have the equipment installed by December but they don't expect the system to be fully operational until 2020.
Less than half of the nation's freight rail network is equipped with the technology, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. Only a quarter of its passenger train system is.
Installing the system represents an enormous undertaking — updates to switches and signals along tens of thousands of miles of track, plus the locomotives that run along them.
The Association of American Railroads says the industry has made progress toward those recommendations, pouring $9 billion into the system. Jessica Kahanek, a spokeswoman for the freight rail trade group, said railroads are working on "getting positive train control right" and will meet Congress's deadlines.
But until every piece is in place, the impact of the technology will be muted, said Mary Schiavo, a Motley Rice attorney in Mount Pleasant and former U.S. Department of Transportation inspector general.
"They have made a sizable investment but it's no good unless it's finished, which was the important takeaway for me from the South Carolina tragedy," Schiavo said. "Unless it all works together, all that investment is for naught."
Twice a year
That's a message the NTSB has reiterated again and again in its investigations into train accidents. The slow roll-out of PTC is now routinely pegged as a cause of damaging crashes and derailments.
Investigators have found that a system which puts the brakes on speeding trains and checks for switches set the wrong way would have prevented several major crashes. Those accidents have done tens of millions in damage, killed dozens of workers and passengers and led to stunningly close calls for even more.
In the past decade, the NTSB has cited the lack of PTC at least 20 times in its investigations, according to a Post and Courier review of its reports — in Washington state and Wyoming, Chicago and California, New Jersey and North Carolina.
The NTSB said the system would have stopped two light-rail trains from colliding in downtown Boston, injuring 68. And it would have stopped a commuter train in New York from blowing through a 30-mph speed limit because its engineer was sleeping, killing four. And it would have kept a train in Indiana from speeding through a stop signal, causing an accident that led to a three-train pile-up.
Investigators have identified these problems on long-haul freight lines, commuter train and local transit systems. They have cited it in investigations of fatal crashes and close calls, like the time a crew in Missouri jumped from a speeding train just seconds before it T-boned another.
The PTC system has gotten lots of attention lately because it's supposed to slow down speeding trains. It has been in the news in recent months after NTSB officials said the technology could have put the brakes on an Amtrak train speeding outside Tacoma, Wash., before it skidded off the rails, killing three.
But this month's crash in South Carolina highlights a more common issue on America's railroads, one that PTC is also meant to curb: Trains that derail or crash because switches aren't set correctly.
The railroad industry says it has tamped down on those human errors during the past decade, but federal records show that switching issues have caused 132 accidents in the past year. The braking system is supposed to stop trains from going through switches set the wrong way.
Of them, 21 happened on railroads' main lines or the siding tracks that run beside them, where the consequence of a mistake can be more grave.
"People do get distracted, and there are mistakes that are made, and having a safety redundancy system is important," said Robert Chipkevich, the NTSB's former director of railroad investigations. "If you don't have a redundant system in place to prevent an accident, when a mistake is made or a person is distracted, the result is an accident."
And while the majority of those accidents happen in the relatively safe confines of rail yards, the mental mistakes that cause trains to bump or derail in the yard are the same kind that can be disastrous on a main track, said Warren Flatau, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, which oversees the nation's train system.
"There are really, really formalized roles that these folks are expected to know," Flatau said. "If this happens in a yard, is it going to happen on a main line?"
Early indications suggest that it did in Cayce. A CSX train was apparently moved from a nearby depot to a side track, where it was parked. The switch that moved it to the side wasn't put back in its normal position.
And it happened 13 years ago in Graniteville, a small town in Aiken County that's still known for its rail disaster.
Workers parked their train outside a factory in town, and, after a long shift, they forgot to throw the switch that led there. Later that night, the switch put a train carrying chlorine gas on a collision course with the one they had parked. The collision and gas fumes killed nine and hospitalized 75 others.
The Graniteville crash was one of a string of high-profile accidents caused by human error in the mid-2000s that eventually led federal lawmakers to mandate a PTC system.
Their goal was to prevent a simple oversight — like a misplaced switch or a missed speed limit — from having catastrophic consequences.