In the wake of last year’s Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia, a great number of theories were offered by everyone from train experts to passengers themselves on why Amtrak 188 crashed. For months, we all wanted an explanation for how an experienced, meticulous Amtrak engineer like 32-year-old Brandon Bostian could have allowed Amtrak 188 to crash at a sharp curve along Frankford Junction. Was Bostian tired? Distracted by a cell phone? Did the train experience some sort of mechanical malfunction? Was it hit by rocks?
After these and other theories were scrutinized for about a year, The National Transportation Board (NTSB) investigators have now put forth their conclusions as to why Amtrak 188 crashed in Philadelphia. The NTSB released its final report on the crash on Tuesday, summarized its findings, and offered train safety recommendations in an effort to prevent crashes like this one from happening again.
Why Amtrak 188 Crashed
The Amtrak 188 report concluded that Mr. Bostian was distracted at the worst possible moment by radio traffic concerning rocks that had been thrown at another train in the area. Bostian lost situational awareness, according to the report, which allowed the Amtrak engineer to run the train at over 100 miles-per-hour in an area with a posted speed limit of 50 miles-per-hour.
This loss of situational awareness theory emerged early in the investigation, and for good reason: trains are ‘rocked’ quite often, especially when traveling through urban areas of the Northeast Corridor. The other train that had been rocked, a SEPTA train, was forced to pull off of the main track, because the engineer had been injured by broken glass.
Many thought that Amtrak 188 may also have been hit by rocks. However, investigators who analyzed the windshield of Amtrak 188 determined that while the train’s windshield was cracked, it wasn’t hit by rocks.
Instead, the NTSB says Bostian was distracted by the radio chatter discussing the plight of the SEPTA train. The distraction was, they conclude, sufficient to alter his situational awareness which, in turn, caused him to speed up rather than slow down as the train sped into the sharp curve. The area where the crash occurred has several stretches of track where train speeds fluctuate quickly. Investigators have posited that even though Bostian knew the route well, the radio distraction may have allowed him to believe that he had already passed the sharp curve, so he mistakenly opened up the throttle rather than slow the train down.
Bostian himself remains the biggest mystery of why Amtrak 188 derailed. While he cooperated with investigators, the Amtrak engineer claims to have no memory of what happened in the moments leading up to the derailment. According to the Atlantic, he sustained a concussion in the crash.
The NTSB report on why Amtrak 188 derailed effectively, ruled out mechanical failure as a contributing cause. However, investigators found that windows on the train popped out during the crash. Had the windows stayed in place, the report says, passengers would not have been ejected and injuries would not have been so severe.
NTSB: We Need Positive Train Control
There is one other question beyond why Amtrak 188 crashed that the NTSB addresses: could the crash have been prevented in the first place? Of the 238 passengers and five crew members aboard Amtrak 188, over 200 sustained injuries, including 11 who were critical. Eight people lost their lives in the tragedy. The NTSB concluded that Positive Train Control (PTC) could have prevented the crash had it been implemented in the Northeast Corridor.
PTC is a technological failsafe that uses GPS with radar and track sensors; it allows computers to control a train remotely if an operator doesn’t have control of the locomotive. It is designed to avoid train collisions and prevent speed-induced derailments caused by human error—precisely the situation in this event.
According to NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart, train crashes in Chatsworth, California in 2008 and the Bronx, New York in 2013 could also have been avoided had PTC been installed. The NTSB has calculated that PTC could have prevented 145 train accidents since 1969, saving the lives of 288 people. The agency has been advocating for PTC since 1970.
Chairman Hart went out of his way to call for full implementation of PTC, which would have prevented the Amtrak 188 disaster. Amtrak has since installed PTC on most of the Northeast Corridor, including the area where Amtrak 188 derailed.
Following the Chatsworth train crash in 2008, Congress passed legislation requiring all railroads hauling hazardous materials or offering inner city and commuter passenger service, to install PTC by December of 2015. The railroads pushed back against the law, and Congress extended the deadline to 2018. The price of the delay must be calculated to include the lives of eight passengers, not to mention all those whose lives will never be the same due to the trauma sustained in the high speed derailment.
“As we discussed [sic] our findings regarding this preventable tragedy, let us keep in mind the deadline that matters is not 2018,” Hart said on Tuesday. “The deadline that really matters is the date of the next PTC-preventable tragedy.”