‘Reckless’ Amtrak Engineer Was Driving at Double Speed Limit

By Romy Varghese, Mark Drajem and Angela Greiling Keane | May 13, 2015

The New York-bound Amtrak train that derailed in Philadelphia, killing seven and injuring more than 200, was traveling 106 miles per hour just before the accident, more than double the speed limit, according to U.S. regulators.

The engineer applied full brakes but only slowed the train to 102 mph before it derailed, Robert Sumwalt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, said at a Wednesday news conference. The speed limit in the curve where the wreck occurred is 50 mph. Sumwalt didn’t identify the engineer but said investigators planned to talk with him.

Scene of a deadly Amtrak train derailment, Wednesday, May 13, 2015, in Philadelphia.   (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Scene of a deadly Amtrak train derailment, Wednesday, May 13, 2015, in Philadelphia.
(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Sumwalt said the accident could have been prevented if the track had been equipped with automatic braking technology that’s in place on most of the rail line between Washington and Boston. The NTSB said it determined the speed based on preliminary data and is continuing its examination.

The train’s engineer was “reckless and irresponsible in his actions” by traveling at twice the speed limit, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter told CNN. “There’s really no excuse that could be offered, literally unless he had a heart attack. And he went to the hospital and we interviewed him and he was released. So that doesn’t appear to be one of the reasons.”

Northeast Regional Train 188, which originated in Washington, went off the tracks about 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, closing part of the busiest passenger-rail corridor in the U.S. The train carried 238 passengers. Neither Amtrak nor regulators explained why the train was traveling above the speed limit.

Sumwalt said he expects that Amtrak would begin rebuilding the track “very soon” and that investigators would be on the scene for a week.

Service Disruption

Amtrak service between New York and Philadelphia is likely to remain suspended Thursday, sending business travelers and commuters searching for other ways to traverse the East Coast. Modified service will be provided between Washington and Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Philadelphia, and New York and Boston, according to an Amtrak statement. New Jersey Transit will honor Amtrak tickets between New York City and Trenton.

Sumwalt said NTSB investigators started arriving before 5 a.m. at the scene where an engine and seven cars careened off the tracks. The wreck turned a Philadelphia neighborhood into a search-and-rescue zone, illuminated by flashlights and spotlights as workers pulled the injured from cars and bloodied passengers hobbled from the wreckage.

Nutter told reporters Wednesday evening that police were still searching the crash site for any passengers who might have been ejected and hadn’t been found.

Camera Footage

A data recorder being analyzed at an Amtrak facility in Delaware should show the train’s speed and how the throttle, brakes, horn and bells were applied, Sumwalt said. The locomotive had a forward-facing camera and its footage will be reviewed.

Sumwalt’s declaration that automatic-braking technology could have prevented the accident echoes a common refrain of the board. NTSB members have said systems might have prevented a December 2013 Metro-North Railroad wreck in New York City that killed four passengers and a May 2013 Metro-North accident in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

The so-called positive train control systems, which automatically track velocity and can stop trains before they crash, are mandated by the end of this year. Sumwalt told CNN it’s not clear why the system is installed in other parts of Amtrak’s northeast corridor but not where Tuesday’s derailment occurred. Amtrak didn’t respond to a request for comment

Congressional Mandate

Congress in 2008 ordered railroads to install the technology, which can automatically stop trains to avoid a crash, by the end of 2015. That law was prompted by a head-on collision between a freight and a commuter train in Los Angeles that killed 25 people and injured more than 100.

Railroads estimated the cost of the mandate at $13.2 billion to cover 23,000 locomotives that run on 60,000 miles of tracks. The technology uses sensors that communicate between a train and the tracks.

“The question isn’t whether this technology will be implemented but when,” Deborah Hersman, chief executive officer of the National Safety Council, said in an interview. “Passenger railroads and freight railroads don’t oppose positive train control because they all recognize there are tremendous benefits. It’s just a matter of priorities and where their money is best spent.” Hersman is a former NTSB chairman.

Amtrak’s accident rate has been inching higher, with 67 in 2014, up from 58 in 2013 and 57 in 2012, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

‘Sharp’ Curve

Mortimer Downey, a transportation consultant who has been deputy U.S. transportation secretary and an Amtrak board member, said investigators would examine the track’s configuration and condition closely. He described the curve near the accident site as “very sharp.”

The carnage in Philadelphia’s Frankford neighborhood occurred in an area filled with industrial warehouses, auto mechanics and body shops. A 1943 derailment of the Congressional Limited train, which killed 79, occurred nearby.

Tuesday’s wreck was far from Amtrak’s deadliest. In 1993, 47 people died and 103 were injured as rail cars careened off a bridge and into water near Mobile, Alabama.

Among those killed in the Philadelphia crash was Abid Gilani, a senior vice president in Wells Fargo & Co.’s commercial real estate division, according to an e-mailed statement from the bank.

Bank Executive

Another passenger who died was identified by the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, as a midshipman on leave and headed home. The victim was confirmed as Justin Zemser by his father, Howard, of Rockaway Beach, New York. The family will release a statement later, Howard Zemser said by telephone.

An Associated Press video-software architect also was killed. Jim Gaines, a 48-year-old father of two, had attended meetings in Washington and was returning home to Plainsboro, New Jersey. His death was confirmed by his wife, Jacqueline.

Rachel Jacobs, the chief executive officer of ApprenNet, a technology firm, also was killed, leaving behind her husband and a two-year-old son, according to a statement from the Michigan League for Public Policy, which is headed by her mother, Gilda Jacobs.

Derrick Griffith, a Ph.D. student at the City University of New York, died in the wreck, according to the school. He was to graduate in two weeks.

Victims in Tuesday’s accident were taken to several hospitals, with about 12 listed in serious or critical condition Wednesday.

Beth Davidz, of Brooklyn, New York, said she was in the third car. She said it felt as though the train was making a wide turn before it toppled on its side and slid for yards. Davidz, 35, said she felt herself falling.

“I knew I was alive because I felt dirt in my mouth,” she said.

–With assistance from David Lerman, Romaine Bostick and Jeff Plungis in Washington, Michelle Kaske in New York and Sophia Pearson in Philadelphia.

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