When Malfunctioning Signals Cause a Train Crash

Malfunctioning train signals place motorists, rail passengers, and railroad employees at significant risk of injury or wrongful death. When signal malfunctions occur, railroad companies have a duty to promptly investigate and repair the cause of the problem. When they fail to do so, they negligently place the health and safety of the general public and their employees at risk.

Understanding Signal Failure

Railway signals are designed to alert motorists and other trains to the presence of an oncoming train. These systems are usually comprised of flashing lights and crossing arms that lower to prevent travel across the tracks as the train approaches and passes.

Faults and failures can cause the signals to turn red and the arms at crossings to lower when no train is present. Similarly, they can fail to flash and close when a train approaches. When this happens, vehicles and pedestrians can find themselves in the path of a fast moving train.

What Causes Failures

Defective or damaged track circuits and axle counters are leading causes of signal failures. Damage to these components can be caused by moisture penetration, cuts, exposure to high temperatures, or rusting. In some cases, the damage may be caused by cable thieves who have pilfered cables for their copper content.

When the signal system is damaged, it can disrupt the flow of electrical current passing through the system. This can send faulty signals to lights and crossing arms or fail to trigger the system into operation when a train nears an intersection.

Signal Failures Cause Deadly Crashes

Signal failures have led to two significant crashes in recent history. In February 2018, an Amtrak train carrying lawmakers to a retreat in West Virginia was involved in a deadly collision when a crossing signal failed. The failure caused a collision with a passing garbage truck that led to the death of the truck driver and numerous injuries to passengers on the train.

Just prior to this accident, another Amtrak train in South Carolina collided with a stationary train. The accident occurred when a switch malfunctioned and sent a passenger train down the wrong track. The crash killed two Amtrak employees and injured over 100 passengers. The accident highlighted a growing pattern of safety problems with Amtrak that had caused four fatal accidents in less than two months.