ON "60 MINUTES": IN HIS FIRST INTERVIEW, FIRED TRAIN ENGINEER RECOUNTS THE DEADLY CRASH OF AN AMTRAK TRAIN INTO HIS FREIGHT TRAIN
Mark James describes the deadly crash of an Amtrak passenger train into his CSX train in his first interview since the accident that killed two and injured many more. But as Lesley Stahl reports, the crash could have been prevented. Stahl's investigation will be broadcast on 60 MINUTES Sunday, March 3 (7:00-8:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network.
On a night about a year ago, James parked his CSX freight train on a siding near Columbia, S.C. That night, the train's conductor had been manually throwing track switches, like the one that diverted his train onto the sidetrack from the main line. James was outside his engine when the lights of the Amtrak Silver Star approached. "I'm expecting these headlights very bright coming, to get on past us," he tells Stahl "And then I see - you could tell when that train hit the switch and came in on top of us, you could see where it - where it rocked, my mind was just crazy. [I said] 'Oh, my God, no. Please no. Please no.'"
James says he had questioned his conductor about the main line switch. "I asked him multiple times. I trusted him that he had gotten the switch back." The Amtrak engineer and conductor were killed, and more than 90 passengers were injured, some badly. One of the Amtrak cars was bent in half. "They're bringing people off with broke arms, legs, people mangled really. This is something... I'll never get over. I couldn't imagine anybody else that's ever seen that before," says James.
A safety technology called Positive Train Control, PTC, designed to prevent train-to-train collisions, over-speed derailments, incursions into work zones, and misaligned switches, could have thwarted the fatal crash. In 2008 Congress mandated that most major American railroads have PTC by 2015, but for reasons Stahl investigates in her story, most of America's mandated tracks do not have the safety system fully implemented yet. Since the mandate was imposed, following a crash in Chatsworth, Calif., that killed 25 people, there have been 22 accidents, killing a total of 29 people and injuring more than 500.
And it's not only passengers who are endangered by this lag, says Robert Sumwalt, chairman of National Transportation Safety Board. "[One might say] I don't care about this story. I don't ride a train. But most communities have railroad traffic going through it," he tells Stahl. "We've certainly seen accidents with toxic chemicals onboard, where a switch was left in the wrong position right here in South Carolina, in fact."
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