On Tuesday, May 17, 2016, the National Transportation Safety Board released findings regarding the cause of the Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia that resulted in eight fatalities and more than 200 injuries. It was one of the nation’s worst train accidents in recent years. The public statement followed an NTSB meeting held in Washington D.C. The accident happened on May 12, 2015, when the engineer accelerated the train to over 100 mph on a curve with a 50 mph speed limit.
Dozens of Lawsuits
A $295 million cap pertains to the potential monetary damages arising this derailment. Amtrak has admitted fault, and a federal trial in Philadelphia will focus strictly on how to apportion the money to victims and victims’ families. More than five dozen lawsuits resulting from the crash are consolidated in a federal court in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Loss of Situational Awareness Blamed
The NTSB concluded that the engineer most likely lost “situational awareness” leading up to the derailment. The federal agency attributes this loss of awareness to radio transmissions that discussed a Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) commuter train and an Acela train being struck by rocks along the same route.
The NTSB findings discounted early accounts that the derailed train itself was struck by a rock. Rather, investigators concluded that the engineer on the ill-fated train heard as many as two dozen transmissions regarding two other trains possibly being struck by rocks thrown by unknown individuals.
Because the engineer lost situational awareness, investigators concluded he accelerated the train to 106 mph because he thought the Amtrak train was approaching a straightaway. In fact, the train was going into a curve with a 50 mile-per-hour speed limit.
Train data supports this finding, as it demonstrates that the engineer accelerated the train as though he had already completed a series of tight turns. When he realized the train was entering a curve, he belatedly applied the emergency brake.
However, the train derailed just three seconds later while it was still going 102 mph.
Although the engineer sustained a concussion that limited his memory, he told investigators that he did recall hitting the brakes, realizing that it was already too late to sufficiently slow the train. Ultimately, the Amtrak engineer miscounted the tight turns that he had been through, and he went full throttle too soon.
Positive Train Control
The tragic accident has once again focused attention on a safety system referred to as positive train control (PTC). The system automatically slows stops trains to avoid derailments or collisions. One of the lead accident investigators spoke of how the NTSB has called for PTC deployment for decades. Because it adds a layer of redundancy to a system of safeguards that, collectively, prevent a single human mistake from turning deadly.
The NTSB concluded that PTC would have prevented this fatal accident.
Amtrak was only a few months away from installing the safety system on the stretch of track where the derailment occurred. Although Amtrak has deployed PTC on all the rail lines it owns between New York and Washington, the system is frequently not in place on tracks that Amtrak leases from state governments or other railroads. Indeed, Amtrak only owns three percent of the rail lines that it uses, and it leases the other 97 percent.
After a 2008 California train accident killed over 200 individuals, Congress required that railroads install PTC systems by the end of 2015. However, in late 2015, Congress gave the railroads a multi -year extension. The deadline is now 2020.
Also, the only railroads that are required to install PTC are freight railroads and heavy commuter railroads. By contrast, light rail lines, subways and trolleys are not required to deploy PTC. As a result, only Metrolink in California, Amtrak and SEPTA have deployed PTC along certain routes thus far.
A freight rail industry trade organization estimates freight railroads have invested approximately $6 billion implementing PTC thus far, and it expects to invest another $4 billion.
At the same time, PTC is not a complete solution to train accidents. Ultimately, It only reduces accident potential related to human mistakes, and such accidents comprise about one-third of overall train accidents.
Other Key Issues in the NTSB Report
Rock throwing – Investigators concluded that, in the minutes just before the derailment, the engineer was distracted by radio transmissions reporting that two trains a SEPTA train and an Acela train had both been hit by rocks along the route he was traveling. The engineer on the SEPTA train even performed an emergency stop in response to a broken windshield.
As the ill-fated Amtrak train passed by the SEPTA train, the engineer used the horn out of concern that some people might have stepped away from the stopped commuter train. The report also details how a fellow train engineer recently sustained a serious injury when a rock thrown by an individual broke the train’s windshield.
Windows and ejections – The NTSB report also focused on windows that pop out or are dislodged from their frames during derailments. As rail cars slid on their sides during the May 12, 2015 event, some passengers were ejected from the train through window openings. Specifically, four of the eight fatalities involved ejections. The report also refers to a similar problem that caused four fatalities in a 2013 train accident in the Bronx, New York.
Speed limit signs – The report found fault with a lack of speed limit signs along the route. Prior to the derailment, engineers were required to memorize curves and speed limits throughout the route. Following the May 12, 2015 tragedy, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) told Amtrak to put up speed limit signs across the entire Northeast Corridor.
Divergent protocols – The NTSB report also cites varied protocols employed by Philadelphia’s police, fire and office of emergency management for creating confusion in responding to this mass casualty. For example, police in the city routinely take people to hospitals in squad cars, a decades-old practice driven by a desire to treat stabbing and gunshot victims when there is no time to wait for an ambulance.
Train Accidents Often Severe Though Rare
Although the stakes are very high when trains carrying hundreds of people crash such accidents are very rare – approximately one accident per 250,000 miles traveled. Although there are approximately 38,000 travel deaths per year in the United States, less than 800 are related to railroads. 2008 data suggests that, on a per-mile basis, train fatalities are less than one-fourth as common as traffic fatalities.
If you or a family member is a victim in a train derailment or crash, it is possible to review the case with a lawyer. Our firm provides this type of consultation without any cost to you. To learn more, or to ask your questions, please contact us.