Usviewer: Federal crash investigators ruled Tuesday that an Amtrak engineer caused a fatal crash in Philadelphia because he accelerated to twice the posted speed limit before a curve while likely being distracted by radio chatter about damage to another train.
The train barreled into a 50-mph curve at 106 mph before derailing May 12, 2015, killing eight passengers and injuring nearly 200, according to National Transportation Safety Board investigators.
The northbound track's speed limit rose to 110 mph just after the accident curve, where that acceleration would have been allowed. But the board ruled that the engineer likely lost track of where he was while listening to six minutes of radio calls between a Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority engineer and a dispatcher about rocks thrown through the windshield of the other train that stopped on an adjacent track.
“Given that it was dark outside, there were fewer visible cues to help him identify his location,” said Stephen Jenner, the board staffer who investigated human performance in the accident. “With his attention diverted to the SEPTA train for several minutes, the engineer may ultimately have lost track of where he was before he accelerated to a high rate of speed.”
The Amtrak train wasn't hit by rocks or bullets, investigators said.
The board voted 3-1 that the probable cause of the accident was because the engineer accelerated to 106 mph “due to his loss of situational awareness likely because his attention was diverted to an emergency situation with another train."
Board member Bella Dinh-Zarr opposed the probable cause because she said the lack of automatic braking at the accident site should have been part of the direct cause rather than simply a contributing factor to the crash, as the board decided.
According to USA Today, Amtrak met a congressional deadline of Dec. 31 to deploy and use automatic braking along its Northeast Corridor track from Washington, D.C., to Boston, except for 56 miles owned by the states of New York and Connecticut. But Amtrak wasn't employing automatic braking, which is known as "positive train control" or PTC, at the fatal curve when the accident occurred.
"We know that PTC would have prevented this crash," Dinh-Zarr said.
Sarah Feinberg, head of the Federal Railroad Administration, said the board’s findings underscored the urgency for other railroads to install automatic braking. Congress extended the deadline to the end of 2018, with a two-year extension possible from the secretary of transportation.
“While Congress has given railroads at least three more years to fully implement PTC, the public deserves it sooner,” she said.