Dozens of people were injured Monday when a northbound Amtrak train that had originated in Charlotte derailed after hitting a truck at a crossing in Halifax.
The tractor-trailer and the oversize load it was carrying – a mobile-home-size building wrapped in heavy blue plastic – was being escorted by the N.C. State Highway Patrol when it was hit by Amtrak’s Carolinian at about 12:15 p.m.
Sixty-two people, including the train’s engineer, were taken to Halifax Regional Medical Center for treatment of injuries not considered life-threatening, said Lt. Jeff Gordon, a Highway Patrol spokesman. The driver of the truck was not injured, Gordon said.
There were 212 passengers and eight crew members aboard the train at the time of the accident, Amtrak said.
The tractor-trailer had picked up its load, a building designed to house industrial electrical systems and equipment, on Tony Farm Road, just outside of Clayton, Gordon said. The truck was headed to New Jersey, and North Carolina troopers were escorting it to the Virginia state line.
The truck and its trooper escort were eastbound on N.C. 903 when they crossed the tracks and attempted to make a left turn onto northbound U.S. 301 (36.330777, -77.594132). Truck driver John Devin Black of Claremont was unsuccessful and backed the trailer onto the railroad tracks just as the Amtrak train was approaching, Gordon said.
The truck and its load were halfway across the tracks when the train hit.
“The train ran right through it,” said Patrick Narmi, a 21-year-old N.C. State University student who boarded the Carolinian in Raleigh at 10:25 a.m. en route to Penn Station in New York.
Narmi, who is from Waxhaw, had purchased a drink at the concessions car and had just settled into his seat for a 10-hour trip when the train “braked harder than usual.”
“A few seconds later I heard the impact,” he said.
Narmi said the effect of the collision was similar to an automobile accident. He was thrown into the seat in front of him head-first before winding up on his knees on the floor.
When Narmi and others were allowed to leave the train, he could see the remains of the shattered building. The train’s engine had flipped on its side. The baggage, business class and coach cars had all gone off the tracks but remained upright.
Amtrak officials moved uninjured passengers to an agricultural center about three blocks from the crossing before busing them to other destinations, said Amtrak spokesman Michael Cole.
There are crossing arms and overhead lights at the crossing. They activated, Gordon said, but the arms came down on the truck, which was not able to get out of the way in time.
It’s not clear how fast the Amtrak train was going before the accident. The maximum authorized speed limit for trains in that area is 70 mph.
The Federal Railroad Administration has sent a team of investigators to the accident scene. Investigators were unable to retrieve the train’s event recorder on Monday because the locomotive was still in an unsafe position.
The accident disrupted train traffic on one of the East Coast’s busiest corridors, including Amtrak trains running between the Northeast and Florida. Transportation officials have closed the roads and railroad crossing until workers can remove the wreckage, derailed cars and shattered building.
Gordon was not sure how long the cleanup would take. “For at least several hours,” he said Monday afternoon. “Maybe longer.”
After starting in Charlotte Monday morning, the Carolinian made stops in Durham, Cary and Raleigh on its way toward Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York City.