Amtrak 188 wreck: FRA Emergency Order; windshield strike possible factor

Written by Carolina Worrell, Managing Editor
Amtrak Wreck Windshield

Following the derailment of Amtrak Northeast Regional Train 188 on May 12, 2015, which killed eight and injured more than 200 others, the Federal Railroad Administration has instructed Amtrak to immediately take several actions, which are expected to be formalized via an Emergency Order, to improve safety along its Northeast Corridor (NEC).

As the Emergency Order was being developed, investigators were looking at the Amtrak locomotive’s windshield, which appears to have been shattered by a heavy object, moments before the crash.

FRA’s actions are as follows:

• Technology to control train speeds: Automatic Train Control—ATC—is currently in use for southbound trains at and near the derailment site to enforce speed restrictions. Amtrak has been ordered to immediately ensure that same technology is in use to enforce speed restrictions for northbound trains. ATC detects when a train is traveling above the speed limit, sending a signal to the engineer. If the engineer fails to act to slow the train down, ATC will automatically apply the train’s brakes.

• Assess risk at all curves on NEC: Amtrak has been ordered to analyze all curves on the NEC to assess risk. In areas where approach speed is significantly higher than curve speed, the appropriate technology intended to prevent over-speed derailments must be implemented immediately. Amtrak must also take a new look at all curves along the corridor and determine if more can be done to improve safety in any of these areas. Amtrak will report back to the FRA with its findings.

ATC is in place at Frankford Curve for westbound trains, which enter the 50-mph curve from a maximum speed of 110 mph, Amtrak said. But ATC is not in place for eastbound trains, which enter from a maximum speed of 80 mph. “The rationale behind the decision not to install there (which was made in the 1990s) is that the drop in speed (from 80 to 50) is considered within the risk envelope,” Amtrak said. “Going the other way (westbound), the decrease in speed is much greater going into the curve (110 to 50), so that’s why ATC was installed there. Had [188] been operating at maximum authorized speed heading into the curve, it would not have come off the tracks.”

• Speed limit signage: Amtrak must increase its wayside signage alerting engineers and conductors of the maximum authorized speed throughout the NEC. Increasing the amount and frequency of signage provides a redundant means to remind engineers and conductors of the authorized speed, in addition to information they receive from the ATC system and other operations documents.

“These are just initial steps, but we believe they will immediately improve safety for passengers on the Northeast Corridor,” said Acting Federal Railroad Administrator Sarah Feinberg. “While full implementation of Positive Train Control (Amtrak’s ACSES system) is the most important step that must be taken to improve safety, it is not the only action that we will require of Amtrak and other railroads. As we learn more from the ongoing investigation into this derailment, we will take additional steps and enforcement actions as necessary.”

Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman has said that the wreck would not have occurred had ACSES been in place. He also reiterated that Amtrak is on schedule to complete ACSES installation on the entire NEC by the end of 2015.

Full service between Philadelphia and New York City on Amtrak’s NEC was restored on May 18.

Amtrak Wreck WindshieldAdditionally, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which has been investigating the derailment since May 13, 2015, tapped the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to determine if the windshield of Amtrak ACS-64 601 was shattered by a hurled projectile—or possibly a bullet—before the train derailed in Philadelphia. But the FBI’s investigation has ruled out the possibility of a bullet hitting the train. According to an NTSB statement, “The NTSB has not ruled out the possibility that another object may have struck the windshield.”

During a NTSB media briefing by board member Robert Sumwalt, one of the two assistant conductors on Amtrak 188, who was in the café car at the time of the derailment, recalls hearing a SEPTA engineer report to the dispatcher that his train was hit by a rock or shot at, followed by a broken windshield that prompted him to place the train into an emergency stop. The assistant conductor believes she then heard her locomotive engineer mention being struck by something.

“We did listen to the dispatch tapes between dispatch and the trains, and indeed the SEPTA engineer did report to dispatch that he had been struck by something. But there was nothing, nothing at all from the Amtrak engineer to dispatch to say that his train had been struck,” Sumwalt told CNN’s Brianna Keilar.

“Furthermore, we have interviewed the SEPTA engineer. And he did not recall having any conversation between him and the Amtrak engineer. But, nevertheless, we do have this mark on the windshield of the Amtrak train, so we certainly want to trace that lead down.”

The windshield of the SEPTA train was indeed struck by something just minutes before 188 derailed. Prior to that, an Amtrak Acela Express had been struck on the side by some kind of projectile, breaking a coach window.

The handling of the train by engineer, Brandon Bostian, 32, who has been cooperating with the NTSB investigation, continues to be a focus of the investigation.

According to media reports, NTSB has completed its review of the data recorder and at this point has not found any indication of mechanical failure. NTSB says it is still early in the investigation, however, and nothing has been ruled out.

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