Amtrak Engineer Distracted by Radio Chatter Prior to Crash

Investigators and first responders work near the wreckage of the crash on May 13, 2015 in north Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Investigators and first responders work near the wreckage of the crash on May 13, 2015 in north Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images
  • NTSB concludes Tuesday that crash caused by distraction, speed
  • Eight died and 200 hurt in 2015 derailment in Philadelphia

The Amtrak engineer at the controls of a speeding train that derailed in Philadelphia last year, killing eight people, was distracted by radio communications in the moments before the accident and may have lost track of where he was, investigators concluded Tuesday.

In the minutes before the crash, the engineer was listening to emergency radio transmissions between a dispatcher and the operator of a commuter train that was struck by a rock, National Transportation Safety Board investigator Steve Jenner said at a hearing in Washington.

He was worried about medical assistance requested in the earlier incident, and that there might be workers on the tracks as a result, Jenner said. This, and darkness that left him with fewer visible cues, caused him to lose "situational awareness," he said. He accelerated to speeds suggesting he thought he was in a section further along the tracks where such speeds were permitted, Chairman Christopher Hart said.

The safety board concluded that the crash was caused by the engineer’s distraction. The lack of a system that would have automatically slowed the train to a safe speed also contributed, the NTSB found.

200 Injured

In addition to the dead, more than 200 were injured when the train carrying 238 passengers derailed in a shower of sparks on May 12, 2015, as it sped into a curve at speeds as high as 106 miles (171 kilometers) an hour, more than twice the limit.

The board also cited what it called inadequate regulations to protect passengers inside train cars during an accident. Four passengers were ejected after windows popped out of their frames, which may have contributed to their death, the board found. Others were hurt when they were flung side-to-side or hit by flying debris within the cars.

Amtrak President Joe Boardman said the railroad took responsibility for the accident and was making changes in how it trains engineers to reduce the risks of such accidents happening in the future.

“We’ll make adjustments,” Boardman said. He added that regulations on crash protections for passengers “were not adequate.”

The case revolves around "the most complicated and unpredictable part of the transportation system -- the human being," Hart said.

Fallible Humans

“This shows any human on his best day can make a mistake,” Hart said.

Another issue at the hearing was technology known as Positive Train Control that would have prevented the accident by automatically limiting the train’s speed.

At least 37 deaths could have been prevented since 2008 if PTC, which senses a train’s location and automatically slows or stops if necessary, had been in place, Hart said. The safety board has been recommending its use for 45 years.

"End this list of PTC-preventable fatalities and injuries now," Hart said. 

Safety Technology

The NTSB has recommended the system for decades. Congress had set a deadline to complete it by 2015, but last year extended it to 2018 after railroads said they couldn’t finish the installation in time. 

Amtrak has installed PTC on all but 56 miles on the route between Washington and Boston. Routes elsewhere in the country don’t have the system because those tracks are owned by other railroads. 

“I hope we’re not back in this room looking at another PTC accident before the deadline,” Hart said in remarks after the meeting.

Evidence at the scene and a black-box recorder on the train have given investigators a clear picture of how the train was operated and allowed them to rule out such things as mechanical failures. But there is scant evidence of what was going on in engineer Brandon Bostian’s head.

Bostian, 31 at the time of the accident, was in good health, hadn’t been distracted by a mobile phone and tested negative for drugs, according to investigators. Jenner said Bostian was well thought of by his crew and had never had any disciplinary actions. He was cooperative with investigators, the NTSB said last year.

At Controls

After being hit on the head in the collision, Bostian doesn’t remember what happened in the moments before impact, he told the NTSB.

“I remember turning on the bell, and the next thing that I remember is when I came to my senses I was standing up in the locomotive cab after the accident,” he told investigators a year ago.

Bostian, who didn’t appear at the hearing, was at the controls when the train sped up, suggesting that he commanded the increase.

The stretch of tracks just beyond the curve had a speed limit of 110 miles an hour.

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