Let me say this up front for those who don’t know, since I don’t talk about railfanning very much; I’m a railfan. I certainly don’t know nearly what people who work in that industry know about the trade, but I do consider that I know more about it than Joe or Jane average.

That revelation made, I’ve not said much (if anything) regarding that derailment in South Carolina the other day… where 9 people died as a result of an accident that, in turn, resulted in Chlorine leakage… This turned out to be the most deadly Chorine spill from a railroad in around 30 years.

I didn’t say much, mostly because I didn’t think I was getting a good picture of what had gone down. That’s changing, and so I’ll make my first posting on this subject now.

The initial reports put the blame on the dispatcher… and I was not impressed with those reports, mostly because the ‘feel’ was all wrong. It didn’t help when I noticed what must have been factual errors regarding normal railroad operations in the initial news reports… if there’s one thing that’s nearly surefire, it’s that the press is going to get the internal workings of a nearly vertical business like radio, or computers, or railroading, dead wrong.

This report from AP pretty much confirms what I was thinking.  The reort says the FRA now suspects it was an improperly lined manual switch that the Dispatcher didn’t know about. This makes far more sense than the gabled nonsense I got from the intial reports… for nearly two days.

Even in this more credible report, there are several conceptual errors:

First problem:

The report goes to some length to point up the number of similar accidents that have been occurring nationwide;

“FRA data show that there were 23 train accidents caused by improperly aligned switches during the first nine months of 2004, of a total of 2,577 incidents. “

However, it goes on to quote the FRA rep, thus;

“Most trains operate on tracks that have electronic signals that indicate that a switch is in a position to divert a train off the main track, according to FRA spokesman Steve Kulm. But, he said, 40 percent of railroad track in the United States is in territory that does not have signals. ”

While this is technically true, there is some degree of misrepresentation here.  The electronic signals, first of all, are called “CTC”, or “Central Train Control” and he’s right, most trackage areas are indeed under CTC.

The purpose of CTC is not only to tell the train driver what’s what, but also to tell the central dispatcher what’s going on, as well, and that’s equally important. Had the Dispatcher known of the condition of that ‘hand’ switch, the train would have been instructed to handle that track differently.  By definition, hand switches are not controlled by CTC systems, but are manually operated.


The comment about “40 percent of railroad track in the United States is in territory that does not have signals”, means again, that around 40% of track mileage in this country are not in CTC areas. While again, this is technically true, it only accounts for areas where the signaling is not centralized IN TOTAL… and that number does NOT count hand switches which are on lines which are otherwise in CTC areas, and thereby controlled from a central location.

For example; On the old NYC ‘water Route” now run by CSXT, which runs near my home in Rochester, NY, we have several places along the way which are served by ‘hand switches” IE; Switches under manual control which the dispatcher has no way of reading from his central location.. depending instead on reports from the field.  These hand (Manually operated) switches, present the same level of danger as the ones in so-called ‘dark’ areas. Yet track speed for Amtrak in this areas is 79mph… and 65 for some freights. This is done because you’re allowed under FRA rules a set percentage of hand switches within a CTC area, where it still will qualify as a CTC area… and thereby allow higher speed limits, and will follow a different set of operating procedures. (As you might expect there’s a completely different set of operating procedures for CTC and non-CTC areas.)

The point here being that, once again, the press is missing a larger point here… one that makes you wonder…. what else, in other events, are they missing because they’re not educating themselves before they try to represent the facts to US?

PS: And before you start I’m quite aware the investigation isn’t completed as yet, nor will it be for months. Yet, you’d think they could get basic concepts correctly, at least…