The engineer of the Amtrak that derailed and crashed in Philadelphia last year was distracted by radio reports about an emergency situation on another train, federal investigators said in a final report of the disaster that left eight people dead and injured more than 200 others.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has extensively interviewed Amtrak train 188 engineer Brandon Bostian, 32, over the past year to determine how a “qualified, experienced and apparently alert engineer” could have pulled the throttle to its highest position ahead of a notoriously sharp bend in the rails. The train sped to 106 mph, more than twice the speed limit, and toppled over, leaving several dead and critically injured.
According to the NTSB, Mr. Bostian’s train had just passed a Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) commuter train with a shattered windshield and was “very concerned” about the condition of the train’s engineer, who had requested medical attention.
With his attention fixed mostly on reports of the SEPTA incident coming through the radio, Mr. Bostian “may have lost situational awareness,” the NTSB said. The distraction may have been exacerbated by thoughts of a colleague who lost partial eyesight in a similar incident involving a rock thrown at a train, investigators said.
“Positive Train Control (PTC) would have prevented this accident,” the NTSB added. Ironically, Mr. Bostian, who was regarded as an extremely safety-conscious train engineer among his colleagues, had in the past echoed the NTSB’s recommendations and called on Amtrak to install PTC on its trains.
PTC is a device that regulates train movement and speed to enhance crash avoidance.
With his attention distracted, Mr. Bostian “lost track of where he was” and didn’t realize there was a reduced speed limit to accommodate the curve, the NTSB said. There were no signs of alcohol, drug, or cell phone usage before the crash
The NTSB said Mr. Bostian was “extremely cooperative” with the case. The engineer suffered a severe concussion in the crash and provided what details he could remember.
“Okay well this is it, I’m going over,” Mr. Bostian told investigators, adding that he remembers “holding onto the controls tightly” as the train entered the curve.
“The engine felt as though it were tilting over,” he said. “I remember feeling my body lurch to the right…I remember feelings as though I was going too fast around a curve,” he added. “In response to that feeling, I put the train brake on.”
NTSB investigators said Tuesday that PTC would eliminate human error from train operation.
“Unless PTC is implemented soon,” NTSB chairman Christopher Hart warned, “I’m very concerned that we’re going to be back in this room again, hearing investigators detail how technology that we have recommended for more than 45 years could have prevented yet another fatal rail accident.”