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Train Derailment in Crescent City, FL


Avoidable Tragedy

A few days ago, it was a Philadelphia train derailment that claimed (7) dead and over 130 injured.

Since 1991, the railway industry led by CSX has been trying to assure the public that rail transportation is just fine. As, Pulitzer Prize winning author David Johnston discovered in his book, Free Lunch (2007 Penguin Books), in 2006 and 2007 CSX experienced eight derailments in seven weeks. The Federal Railroad Administration found over 3500 violations including 199 serious failures to comply with federal law. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, during the years 2008 – 2014, CSX Transportation was responsible for 1,175 train derailments.

In 1991, it was a South Carolina derailment that claimed over (7) dead and 70 injured.

In 2002, it was Crescent City, Florida where a train derailed killed (4) people and injured over 140 people.


The train derailment in 2002, at Crescent City was caused by CSX Transportation’s continuing failure to properly maintain its railway tracks. The National Transportation Safety Board conclusions were:

“The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of the April 18, 2002, derailment of Amtrak Auto Train P052-18 near Crescent City, Florida, was a heat-induced track buckle that developed because of inadequate CSX Transportation track-surfacing operations, including misalignment of the curve, insufficient track restraint, and failure to reestablish an appropriate neutral rail temperature.”

The facts of the Crescent City crash demonstrate a blatant disregard for the safety of the public, of the Amtrak employees and of the passengers on the Amtrak Trains. The history leading up to this train derailment is telling.

On October 9, 2001, CSX began “repairs” of the Crescent City tracks at the exact point of track where the derailment would soon occur. The repairs were for resurfacing of the track at a curve in the railway known as the “north spiral”.

The natural use of railway tracks and trains passing over the tracks for an extended period leads to compression of the ballast (the rock between the railroad ties) under the tracks and between the ties. As a result, the tracks become uneven, can buckle in places and often cause loosening of the hardware securing the track.  The ballast below the tracks and between the rail ties is used to bear the load from the railroad ties, to facilitate drainage of water, and to keep down vegetation that might interfere with the track structure. The ballast also holds the track in place.

In the Crescent City train derailment, a CSX foreman noticed the liner-tamper machine was not lining the track properly, because the machine was taking the north end of the curve too far to the outside.  Manual adjustments were attempted by CSX and a 25 mile-per-hour slow order was placed on the track in that area. Two days later, on October 11, 2001, employees of CSX, were again using the liner-tamper machine in order to re-align the track but were forced to quit the attempted realignment of the track because the tamper malfunctioned.  The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) discovered that CSX had dangerously misaligned the track causing a weak area which would later lead to the derailment of the Amtrak Auto Train. Ultimately, investigation by our firm of the Crescent City crash disclosed the CSX employees had failed to assure this obvious deficiency was properly inspected, reported and repaired.

About a month later, on November 19, 2001, further repairs were made to the track near the “north spiral”, but this made the approach to the curve worse because it further weakened the area approaching the “spiral”.  Nonetheless, the lowered speed limit of 25 miles-per-hour was removed from the “north spiral” and, most ominously, none of the reports of problems at this location were ever properly submitted by CSX employees.

On February 26, 2002, the regional CSX resurfacing crew performed additional machine spot surfacing on the same misaligned and improperly maintained area of track.  The area was tamped repeatedly because the track would not conform to its proper position.  CSX employees failed to use sufficient ballast to secure the safe restraint of the track, which caused the track to curve further inward.

In what could only be called a jerry-rigged effort, on March 6, 2002, the month before the derailment, local CSX track maintenance personnel constructed a ballast retaining wall of used concrete ties along the inside of the misaligned and curved area of track.  Used concrete ties were placed on the inset of the curve, about four feet below the track level to form a shallow, ballast retaining wall.  Concrete cross ties were stacked two ties high into and on the inside of the curve.  These concrete ties were not secured into the embankment of the curve as they should have been had they been properly installed, and this contributed significantly to the dangerous instability of this area of track.

Rairoad Track Curve

In the next several days, CSX employees attempted to further stabilize the rail and the north spiral area by depositing 70 tons of ballast at this location and performed “spot resurfacing” along this area of the track. However, the CSX crew never did complete a Track Disturbance Report. Inspection of the work done should have demonstrated significant ballast was dangerously missing from the inside shoulder of the track and underneath the ends of the cross ties and in the areas between the cross ties. This created an ultimately catastrophic effect of causing the outside ties to rotate upward and out of alignment.

On April 8, 2002, just 10 days before tragedy would ultimately strike the derailment curve was inspected by the Florida Department of Transportation.  This brief inspection showed a dangerous area where cross ties needed to be replaced because the track was unstable.  A CSX track inspector then placed speed restrictions of 30 miles-per-hour for passenger trains and 25 miles-per-hour for freight trains over the defective track.

On April 18, 2002, the Amtrak Auto Train P052-18 passed over a buckled portion of the track, 21 of its 40 cars derailed and careened off the tracks resulting in catastrophic passenger and crew injuries, and four passenger deaths.

The investigation of train derailment is a complex area filled with industry experience, engineering standards, the science of metallurgy and detailed industry regulation standards. The rules and standards are there for a reason and following those save lives. Failing to follow those results in tragedies in Philadelphia, South Carolina, Crescent City and several other locations we have seen.

In the Crescent City derailment, Chris Searcy and I, because of our extensive experience with train derailments, were able to successfully obtain justice for 11 injured and killed passengers for a tragedy that should never have happened.

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