The Amtrak 188 train that traveled from Washington D.C. to New York was supposed to be the safest locomotive owned by Amtrak. In May of last year, however, the 98-ton train derailed in Philadelphia, killing eight people and injuring an estimated 200 more.
Since then, every aspect surrounding the train was picked apart by law enforcement. Was the train malfunctioning? Was it a mechanical issue? Was there an outside force throwing rocks or shooting at it? What was the reason the train was violently jerked off the tracks? When all other theories were debunked and dismissed, questions became directed at the engineer of the train.
The investigation turned to the three-mile stretch of the track that included North Philadelphia Station and Frankford Junction. It required an experienced engineer to maneuver it. The engineer was supposed to speed the train out of the North Philadelphia station, then slow it down for a curve on North Second Street, then speed it up to 70 mph for a straightaway, then drop the speed to 50 mph when the track curves again at the junction.
Instead, the engineer hit 106 mph on the second straightaway where the speed limit was posted as 70 mph. By the time he activated the emergency break, it was too late. The train lurched at the curb and the 98-ton train, with its seven cars and 250 passengers, were hurled off the tracks. The engineer suffered a concussion.
When train accidents occur, explanations can be attributed to a crash with another train, a technical malfunction, a misaligned track or a vehicle stuck on the tracks. However, the Amtrak 188 did not have a typical explanation. The engine was working perfectly fine—there seemed to be no computer glitch in the electric controls.
The engineer submitted to a drug and alcohol test, but he was clean. He submitted his phone for review, and it was later stated that his phone was turned off and in his bag, so he could not have been on the phone while he was controlling the train. He told investigators he was neither tired nor particularly stressed at the time. He felt comfortable with the route and the engine, and he was not overly concerned about people throwing rocks or shooting at the train.
Initially, the engineer could not remember the circumstance and many people assumed a rock had been thrown and knocked the engineer unconscious for the crash. However, later, the engineer released a statement saying he was conscious and he remembered accelerating the train up to 80 mph, which was still too fast knowing the curve was approaching. The engineer says that’s the last thing he remembers.
While there are many lawsuits surrounding the crash, they are not directed towards the engineer for negligence. Despite the fact that the engineer appears to be at fault and there was driver error, many victims have outwardly blamed Amtrak for not providing up-to-date safety systems.
In both Europe and Asia, positive train control (PTC) systems track the trains using radio waves, GPS signals and direct contact with other trains. Using the information gathered, PTCs determine the train’s speed. If the train is going too fast, the breaks are automatically triggered. Due to funding issues, Amtrak has never been able to install this technology onto its trains. However, this specific device could have prevented the devastating Amtrak 188 accident.
Koonz, McKenney, Johnson, DePaolis & Lightfoot, L.L.P. is a personal injury law firm that helps accident victims in Washington, Virginia and Maryland.