On May 12, 2015, an Amtrak train heading to New York from Washington, D.C. sped around a sharp curve at double the 50 mph speed limit, 10 minutes after leaving a station in Philadelphia. It crashed and killed eight people on board, injuring 200 more.
On Tuesday, federal officials with the National Traffic Safety Board ruled that human error and high speed both contributed to the Philadelphia crash, NBC News reported.
On that fateful day, the NTSB has determined that engineer Brandon Bostian was distracted just before the crash and “may have lost situational awareness of where he was,” Stephen Jenner, a National Transportation Safety Board investigator, has ruled.
“The engineer lost track of where he was before he accelerated to a high rate of speed.”
— Bloomberg (@business) May 17, 2016
Prior to the NTSB’s report, a source close to the investigation leaked information that suggested Brandon didn’t slow down his train that day because he was distracted by radio chatter.
Investigators found that he didn’t realize that he was at Frankford Junction, nor that he was traveling at 104 mph in a 50 mph speed zone, resulting in the crash 10 minutes outside Philadelphia.
“This was a standard human error,” said investigator Ted Turpin. “They have no more of the right stuff than pilots or anyone else.”
Though the engineer is having a hard time remembering specifics of the crash, he does recall hearing — just prior to the crash — radio transmissions that indicted a rock had hit the windshield of a fellow train.
According to Fox News, he told investigators three days after the crash that he remembered radio traffic in which a commuter train operator with the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority said a rock shattered his windshield.
Bostian said he was concerned about the fellow engineer and “a little bit concerned” for his own safety, but didn’t report that his own Amtrak train had been struck. The NTSB didn’t conclude that these transmissions in particular had distracted Bostian, but he didn’t mention any other radio chatter.
Immediately after the Amtrak locomotive crashed, the NTSB investigated the possibility that it had been hit with a rock or unknown projectile minutes prior. Rock-throwing vandals often target trains in the northeast, meaning it was reasonable for Bostian to worry that his own train was at risk.
“There’s been so many times where I’ve had reports of rocks that I haven’t seen anything, that I felt like it was unlikely that it would impact me,” he said.
The department didn’t unearth any evidence that the Amtrak engineer was talking on his cell phone or had been taking drugs or alcohol.
“An engineer who is not fatigued, distracted, or impaired is not infallible on their best day,” added NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart.
— NBC New York (@NBCNewYork) May 17, 2016
The investigation also uncovered further problems that contributed to the Amtrak crash. The NTSB determined that the Amtrak train wasn’t equipped with a positive train control device that would’ve slowed it down automatically when it had gone over the speed limit.
Further, the Amtrak train didn’t have adequate occupant protections in case the train overturned; the emergency windows had unspecified issues and several people were killed because they were ejected.
The investigation also found fault with the emergency response to the Philadelphia crash. Police evidently transported the injured to the hospital, rather than wait for ambulances. The city will adopt a revised mass-casualty plan in response so that future disasters are handled better.
Bostian suffered a concussion in the crash and can’t remember much about it, except “dream-like” flashes of memory, in which he realized the train was going too fast. He also remembers hitting the brakes. Prior to the incident in Philadelphia, the engineer had no past performance issues.
Many of the injured are still recovering and dozens have sued Amtrak.
[Photo By Mark Makela/Getty Images]