Report: Fatal crash wouldn’t have happened with proper backup

WASHINGTON – A National Transportation Safety Board report on the fatal Amtrak crash in north Philadelphia last year shows that if there had been a second engineer in Train 188’s cab, there would have been no accident, Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen/Teamsters President Dennis Pierce says.

But because there was only one engineer in the Amtrak cab, because he was distracted by an accident on the opposite southbound tracks, and because positive train control – an automatic system that slows a train down when it’s going too fast, as Train 188 was – wasn’t installed, the train derailed and crashed, killing eight passengers and injuring almost 200 more.

The NTSB, an independent safety investigation agency, previously said lack of positive train control was a key factor in the crash. But its report also assigned some blame to the engineer, citing his “loss of situational awareness” as one reason the train was traveling 106 mph in a 50 mph zone. The engineer thought he had cleared the 50 mph zone. He also was distracted by too many tasks in his cab and the commuter train accident on the other tracks.

“Task overload and distraction have been issues of grave concern for the BLET and its members for many years,” Pierce responded. “A key part of our concern is that terms like ‘the loss of situational awareness’ attempt to place blame on the engineer, without considering that any human being can be given too many tasks at any given time, resulting in task overload.”

Railroad unions and workers have been campaigning for years to keep 2-person crews – at least – on all freight and passenger trains, citing safety reasons. The carriers have been demanding single-person engineer only crews, and one top executive even told a rail conference in Chicago last year that he favors crewless freights.

The second crew member would be an even better safety move than PTC, Pierce said, directly rebutting that railroad executive.

His union, other rail unions and Railway Workers United-an organization of rank-and-file rail workers from the Teamsters Rail Conference, Smart’s Rail Division, the Machinists and other unions-have all campaigned for both PTC and a second crew member on all trains.

The Federal Railroad Administration now advocates and is ordering railroads to install PTC on all lines, despite strong railroad resistance that pushed the PTC deadline back by years. The board stopped just short of recommending the agency back 2-person crews, too.

The transportation safety board said post-accident reports should include how many crew members were in the train cab at the time. It then adds FRA should “use the data regarding number of crewmembers in the controlling cab of the train at the time of an accident to evaluate the safety adequacy of current crew size regulations.”

But Amtrak wasn’t solely to blame for the crash, Pierce stated. Congress has to take its share of responsibility, too.

“We would be remiss if we did not also clearly state that Amtrak’s decision-making in phasing in life-saving safety redundancy was constrained by decades of inadequate funding by Congress. Therefore, we also renew our long-standing call for full funding for the nation’s passenger railroad,” he said.

Photo: AP


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.