Why An Amtrak Train Derailed In Philadelphia

Why An Amtrak Train
Derailed In Philadelphia

By Emma G. Fitzsimmons And Josh Keller May 17, 2016

An Amtrak train derailed in Philadelphia last year when its engineer became distracted and accelerated to more than twice the speed limit as he entered a curve, the National Transportation Safety Board said on Tuesday.

The engineer, Brandon Bostian, appeared to have lost track of the train’s location while listening to radio transmissions from a nearby train that had been hit by a rock, investigators said at a hearing in Washington. The derailment killed eight people and injured nearly 200 other passengers.

The safety board identified Mr. Bostian’s actions as the probable cause of the crash and argued that he had lost “situational awareness” when his attention was diverted. A contributing factor was the absence of a safety system, known as positive train control, that officials said could have prevented the crash.

The board’s chairman, Christopher A. Hart, forcefully called for the expansion of positive train control, which can automatically slow or stop a train. The engineer had a good record and was admired by his colleagues, but he still made a mistake, Mr. Hart said.

“This shows that any human on even their best day can make a mistake,” Mr. Hart said. “That’s the reason P.T.C. is so important: because humans make mistakes.”

Train Was Going Twice the Speed Limit

The train derailed along a curved stretch of track about eight miles from where the train left 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. An official with the National Transportation Safety Board said the train was traveling about 106 miles an hour when the engineer applied the brakes, just moments before the derailment. The speed limit on that stretch was 50 m.p.h.

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Engineer Lost Route

The Northeast Regional Train No. 188 that derailed last year had been traveling at speeds similar to earlier trains along the route from Washington to Philadelphia. Train engineers are expected to memorize the speed restrictions along the route. But just before the accident, Mr. Bostian was distracted by radio transmissions from another train and and lost track of his location on the route, investigators said at the hearing on Tuesday.The investigation focused on Mr. Bostian, who said he had gaps in his memory but remembered growing worried shortly before the derailmentwhen he heard that the windshield of a nearby Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority train had been hit by an object.Mr. Bostian had listened to about two dozen radio transmissions between the dispatcher and the engineer of the stopped commuter train before the derailment, investigators said. As he approached the curve, investigators believe Mr. Bostian thought he was in a stretch of track after the curve, where the speed limit was 110 m.p.h.”Given that it was dark outside, there were fewer visible cues to help him identify his location,” said Dr. Steve Jenner, a safety board investigator.

Continued Track

A Safety System Was Missing

At the time of the crash, the area where the derailment area took place was not equipped with positive train control. In December, Amtrak said the technology had been installed on all of the tracks it owns between Washington and New York City.Across the country, installation of the technology has moved slowly, and Congress last year extended the deadline for having it in place on railroads to at least 2018 and possibly later.Sarah Feinberg, the head of the Federal Railroad Administration, said the board’s findings reinforced the importance of installing the technology as soon as possible.”While Congress has given railroads at least three more years to fully implement P.T.C., the public deserves it sooner,” Ms. Feinberg said.


On Tuesday, the safety board issued 11 safety recommendations, including calling on Amtrak to improve training for crews about multitasking during unusual conditions. The board also recommended conducting research on ways to limit passenger injuries and suggested examining the installation of seat belts.

Overriding the Engineer


A Scene of DevastationMr. Bostian, who has been fascinated by trains since his youth, was not using his cellphone at the time of the crash and tested negative for drugs and alcohol, investigators said. He is on administrative leave from Amtrak.Robert J. Mongeluzzi, a lawyer representing passengers who were killed or injured in the derailment, said the safety board had been too easy on Mr. Bostian, whose behavior was reckless.”Operators should be able to confront things like a radio transmission and still do their job,” Mr. Mongeluzzi said, adding that Mr. Bostian should be fired. Mr. Bostian’s lawyer, Robert Goggin, did not respond to a request for comment.

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