Amtrak Philadelphia Crash Findings Released

The results of an enquiry into the derailment of an Amtrak train at Frankford Junction, Philadelphia, on 12 May 2015 have been released by the National Transport Safety Board. The crash killed eight people and hospitalised a further 185.

Amtrak Philadelphia Crash Findings Released
Image courtesy of NTSB

Investigation Finds Human Error at Fault

The cause of the crash has been put down to human error; the driver was in positive control of the train (rather than incapacitated) but was distracted, causing him to accelerate into a bend at Frankford Junction. He was distracted by an emergency situation with a nearby SEPTA train which had been forced to make an emergency stop after being struck by a projectile. At that point on the track, the train should have slowed to 80km/h, but because the driver erroneously believed he was past the curve, the train was in fact travelling at 170km/h.

Positive train control has since been installed on that route, pre-emptive of the finding that any such system would have prevented the accident derailment. It was also found that passenger safety standards were inadequate; had windows remained in tact, passengers would not have been thrown from the cars and the number of fatalities would have been reduced.

In a closing statement, Christopher A. Hart of the NTSB Board, said:

“We searched for any involvement of drugs, alcohol, or fatigue, and found none. We looked at the weather, the locomotive, and the track, and determined that this was a good train on good track, with an engineer who was fit for duty, not fatigued, not impaired by drugs or alcohol, and not distracted by a personal electronic device.

“We have long known that even in the absence of such factors, human beings are fallible, making a technological backstop, such as PTC, a necessity.

“And we asked Amtrak to improve training based on how human cognition copes with concurrent tasks. Our deep look into the human cognitive mechanisms that underlie situational awareness points toward the importance of understanding prospective memory as a way to reduce error in human decision making. This area may hold many insights and solutions to human performance in safety-critical operations, such as operating trains.”

Richard Blumenthal, Senator for Conneticut, wrote in a statement on 17 May 2016, that:

“In the NTSB’s harrowing, heartbreaking account of human error, one clear, unequivocal fact emerges: eight lives were lost and hundreds more people were injured in a tragic catastrophe that could have been prevented by PTC. While some railroads have worked in earnest to implement PTC, we can add the death toll in Philadelphia to the tally of hundreds of lives taken and thousands injured because most railroads have resisted implementing PTC. Congressional acquiescence to their demands for delay has been culpable as well.”

Positive train control is a train control system, similar to ERTMS, which enables wireless communication between fixed signalling points and onboard speed control units, relaying speed and location. The system is fragmented throughout the USA, and roll-out has been beset by technical difficulties. Although it was mandated in 2008 that all railroads in the United States install PTC by 2015, this was extended to 2020 by Congress last year.

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