When Amtrak 188 derailed and crashed in Philadelphia last year, killing eight people and injuring hundreds of others, investigators quickly honed in on Brandon Bostian, the train’s engineer, to understand what caused the worst U.S. rail disaster in decades.
Ruling out drugs or alcohol and lack of experience, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) endeavored to find if maybe Mr. Bostian, who strongly advocated for better railroad safety in past years, may have been distracted by his cell phone when he lost control of the train.
But it turns out another distraction, coupled with what investigators call “lost situational awareness” may have been what caused Mr. Bostian to round a notoriously sharp curve with excessive speed, according to a report by the New York Times.
The NTSB hasn’t said publicly what factors it believes played into the disaster, but the New York Times says investigators will likely report that Mr. Bostian may have confused the sharp curve at Frankford Junction with another previous, softer curve because he was new to the route.
Also, just before the curve, Mr. Bostian may have been distracted by a rock that had been thrown at the train, the New York Times explains.
As Richard Beall, a longtime accident investigator with the NTSB, discussed the possibilities with the New York Times:
“To me, it’s pretty clear what happened,” Mr. Beall said. “Bostian’s got the throttle open to get the train up to speed. A projectile hits the windshield. Now the windshields on these locomotives are thick, but that impact is going to be out of nowhere and scary. As a human, you’ve got a tendency to duck. But he ducks into the dashboard and smacks his head, knocks himself out. And by the time he’s back up, and he’s reoriented himself, it’s: ‘Oh, crap.’ ”
Mr. Bostian, 32, has not been charged in connection with the crash, but it remains a possibility. For now, at least as far as the NTSB is concerned, the more pressing issue is why Amtrak didn’t install a positive train control system (PTC) on the high-speed rail.
This year, the NTSB once again called for the implementation of PTC on trains to enhance railroad safety in its annual “most wanted” list of safety measures. A 2008 law mandated that all trains be equipped with PTC crash-prevention technology by the end of 2015, but Congress changed the law last year, leaving PTC systems optional for now. Had Congress and the railroads upheld the law, the crash of Amtrak 188 almost certainly would not have occurred.