(CN) – Federal investigators are scrutinizing a railroad switch that appears to have been locked in the wrong position as the cause of a train collision early Sunday in central South Carolina that left two people dead and up to 116 others injured.
Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, told reporters late Sunday that investigators have found no evidence of foul play in the wake of an Amtrak train slamming into a stationary CSX freight train at about 2:35 a.m. Sunday morning.
But Sumwalt also said the deadly accident, which occurred just outside the the state capitol of Columbia, could have been prevented had the passenger train been equipped with a GPS-based system called “positive train control,” which knows the location of all trains and the positions of all switches in an area.
The system is specifically designed to prevent the kind of human error that puts two trains on the same track.
“It could have avoided this accident. That’s what it’s designed to do,”Sumwalt said.
Positive train control is in place in the Northeast, but railroads that operate tracks used by Amtrak elsewhere in the U.S. have won repeated extensions from the government. The deadline for installing such equipment is now the end of 2018.
Investigators said the switch that is now a focus of the investigation was aligned and padlocked to divert the Amtrak train onto a side track, where the CSX freight train was parked.
Amtrak’s Silver Star, which was en route from Miami to New York, had just stopped to pick up passengers in Columbia, and is estimated to have been traveling at about 50 mph — nine miles less than the 59 mph speed limit, when it crashed into a line of two locomotives and 34 freight cars.
Sumwalt told reporters at a packed news conference Sunday that were was no way the Amtrak train could have stopped to avoid the collision and that the damage to both trains was “catastrophic.”
“The key to this investigation is learning why that switch was lined that way,” Sumwalt said, adding that investigators what to know not only what happened, but why “so we can prevent it from happening again.”
Killed in the wreck were Amtrak engineer Michael Kempf, 54, of Savannah, Ga., and conductor Michael Cella, 36, of Orange Park, Fla.
At least three passengers were hospitalized in critical or serious condition, with nearly all the rest treated for minor injuries such as cuts, bruises and whiplash, authorities said.
The company issued a statement saying it “was deeply saddened” by the day’s tragedy.
CSX, which owns the tracks on which the Amtrak train operates in the east coast rail corridor, issued a statement late Sunday afternoon, offering condolences to the families of the men killed in the train wreck.
“We remain focused on providing assistance and support to those impacted by today’s accident,’’ the company’s statement said.
The crash was the third deadly wreck involving Amtrak in less than two months.
On Wednesday, a chartered Amtrak train carrying Republican members of Congress to a retreat slammed into a garbage truck in rural Virginia, killing one person in the truck and injuring six others.
And on Dec. 18, an Amtrak train ran off the rails along a curve during its inaugural run near Tacoma, Washington, killing three people and injuring dozens. It was going nearly 80 mph, more than twice the speed limit.
In South Carolina, word of the crash immediately brought back memories of the fatal 2005 railroad accident in Graniteville, a small community near the South Carolina/Georgia border.
Nine people were killed in that wreck after a speeding freight train ran off a main track and ran into a parked train car. The impact sent a cloud of toxic chlorine gas over the town that was blamed for the deaths.
A 1991 crash in Lugoff, South Carolina, a small town in KErshaw County, north of the site of Sunday’s crash, left seven people dead.
More recently, in 2015, two CSX freight trains collided in Allendale County, causing a chemical spill, but no fatalities.