Opinion

More than one human error behind Amtrak wreck

Brandon Bostian was by all accounts the sort of conscientious engineer any passenger would want in the locomotive, his professionalism and lifelong love of trains evident in earnest online posts about rail safety. And yet radio chatter about a SEPTA train struck by a rock north of Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station — a common hazard on the Northeast Corridor — was probably enough to distract the Amtrak engineer from the quick series of speed changes required ahead of one of the corridor’s sharpest curves, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded in a report released Tuesday. He drove the train into the big Frankford Junction bend at more than twice the 50 mph speed limit and, as an NTSB member put it, “went in a matter of seconds from distraction to disaster.”

A year later, the derailment of Amtrak 188, which killed eight and injured about 200, looks like the terrible result of unavoidable human fallibility on the part of the engineer — and, more importantly, the all too avoidable failures of the humans elected to our national legislature.

The most effective precaution against lapses such as Bostian’s has been so clear for so long that the NTSB has been pushing it for more than 45 years. A technology known as positive train control monitors speeds and activates brakes if an engineer fails to respond to speed limits or hazards. But the system was not yet in place for much of the Northeast Corridor that day. And in October, less than six months after the wreck and with a year-end deadline to institute the technology looming, the U.S. Senate caved to industry lobbyists and gave the nation’s railroads up to five more years to deploy the technology.

Congress instituted the blown deadline back in 2008, after a head-on collision of freight and commuter trains in Los Angeles — one that could have been prevented by positive train control — killed 25. The NTSB estimates that 37 deaths since then, and some 300 since 1970, also could have been prevented by the technology.

For most of the Northeast Corridor, albeit too late for the passengers of 188, Amtrak met the original December deadline to put the technology in place. The only significant part of the line not covered is in upstate New York and Connecticut, on tracks that belong to the Metro North commuter system, which does not have positive train control. Neither does NJ Transit, which doesn’t expect to implement the technology until 2018. SEPTA also blew the original deadline but now expects all Regional Rail lines to be covered by July.

Of secondary but nonetheless substantial concern, the NTSB investigation also revealed poor coordination among police, fire, and hospital officials in transporting and treating injured passengers in the aftermath of the wreck. While emergency personnel performed admirably overall and the miscommunications are not believed to have harmed anyone, the Kenney administration should take the opportunity to address the confusion before the next crisis.

The wreck of Amtrak 188 horribly quantified a cost of inaction that was depressingly well known to railroad and government officials. Every year of additional delay is likely to compound the suffering already inflicted.

The above editorial appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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