Sunday's fatal Amtrak crash could galvanize a decade-long stalled push in Congress to make railroads install a life-saving system that could have prevented the one in Cayce that killed two people and injured 116.
Known as "positive train control," or PTC, the GPS-based system can automatically slow or stop speeding trains, alert engineers if a train is heading onto the wrong track and take control if human operators are making reckless navigation decisions.
National Safety Transportation Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt said Monday that train signals in the area were not operating Sunday morning because they were being upgraded to install the crash-preventing technology.
"If that’s the case, fine, but that’s not an excuse to me," said U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia, who holds the third most senior position in the Democratic leadership.
"It was supposed to be installed by 2015," he said. "We can't continue to put greed over need."
The collision of Amtrak 91 outside Columbia marks the third fatal rail accident in less than 50 days. It happened five days after President Donald Trump gave his first State of the Union address, calling for a $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan.
The NSTB first placed the safety system on its "Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements" in 1990.
Now, 28 years later, the call for action grows louder.
"For every day that we go without an operating positive train control system, we risk yet another accident like we saw here," Sumwalt told reporters Sunday after surveying the scene of the fatal crash.
When a 2008 collision between a commuter train and a freight train in California killed 25 people, Congress responded by mandating railroads install PTC by Dec. 31, 2015. But when that deadline came and went, Congress gave railroads another three years to comply with the law.
Now, if railroads meet certain requirements, they can have until Dec. 31, 2020, to comply.
CSX, which for its part, has said that it's making progress toward a nationwide rollout of the technology, and it plans to have the hardware that drives the system in place by the end of the year, the company’s finance chief, Frank Lonegro, told investors last month.
Full implementation won’t come until later; Lonegro said the system won’t be up and running until 2020.
Norfolk Southern, the other major railroad operating in South Carolina, also says it will take until 2020 to get its system running. Operations chief Michael Wheeler told investors last month that the railroad has "always said" it would take advantage of the extension, but it plans to have equipment installed by the end of the year.
U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., of Mount Pleasant, sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. He also sits on the Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials subcommittee, which will meet next week to discuss the implementation of PTC systems.
"I think that tragedies like the one that occurred the other night further speed the implementation of positive train control," Sanford told The Post and Courier.
However, the process is slow-going, he explained.
"These sensing mechanisms don't just suddenly appear. They have to be installed and tested and coordinated," Sanford said.
In a written statement to the newspaper, the office of U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman, R-Rock Hill, said he hopes the full implementation of the PTC system will be tied into the upcoming infrastructure bill.
U.S. Rep. Tom Rice, R-Myrtle Beach, said there is no reason to wait when it comes to matters of public safety. Rice said he saw the push back firsthand when he spent his first three years in Congress on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
"There's no reason that individuals should have the primary control on a multi-ton vehicle that really the only controls are 'go' and 'stop,' " Rice said by phone Monday.
Rice was also on the Amtrak train that crashed last week with members of Congress on board after it hit a truck in Virginia, killing one.
"I don’t think that there’s ever been a lapse in the call for positive train control, and I know that Congress is very anxious to proceed with it," he said.
Thad Moore contributed to this report.