Reports have surfaced saying that radio transmissions distracted the engineer at the helm of a train that ran off the tracks last year in Philadelphia.
The train was moving at more than twice the recommended speed of 50 mph when entering a curve, leading to a derailment that resulted in the deaths of eight people and injured more than 200.
Jim Saksa, a reporter covering the story for WHYY in Philadelphia, said the National Transportation Safety Board met on Tuesday to discuss the investigation and the chairman told the board that the distraction caused the accident.
Some reports indicated that people throwing rocks at trains in the area may have distracted the engineer, Brandon Bostian, who then miscounted the number of turns he had made believing that he was further along on his route than he was. Investigators said Bostian may have lost situational awareness.
“He started accelerating into a curve instead of taking it nice and slow, which would be consistent with what he should have done just after the curve,” Saksa said.
Another engineer in Philadelphia reported having to stop another train because a rock thrown from a bridge had cracked the train’s windshield.
“Bostian said he was concerned about getting hit by rocks and described how a colleague of his had been hit by a rock while operating a train that caused the windshield to crack and caused a serious eye injury,” Saksa said.
Saksa said several engineers told him that rocks are regularly thrown at trains.
“If there is an overpass in a place where someone can just throw rocks at a train, people will do that,” Saksa said.
The NTSB has called for railroads to enact positive train control, which alerts engineers if they are speeding heading into a curve or approaching another train on the tracks, preventing accidents caused by human error.
“That would have prevented this accident,” Saksa said.
Following the accident, the Federal Railroad Administration ordered Amtrak to place signs before curves and note speed limits. Saksa said that prior to this, Amtrak engineers memorized their routes without external signs to tell them where they were.
“I’ve gotten distracted by a neat looking bird while I’m driving and missed a turn,” Saksa said. “The idea that we’re asking these guys and women to memorize routes between DC and Boston and know exactly where they are, that’s a lot of situational awareness I feel.”
Though, that has changed, with Amtrak enacting positive train control, he said.
Some of the crash victims have incurred millions of dollars in hospital fees and dozens have sued Amtrak. Saksa said the results of the investigation will not affect these lawsuits because Amtrak has already admitted responsibility, but there is a federally-mandated cap of $295 million on damages from passenger railroad crashes.
“The real question is how to apportion that $295 million to the eight deceased victims’ families and the other 200 injured individuals,” Saksa said.
Regardless, he said trains are still the safest mode of transportation when you look at deaths per mile traveled.
“Passenger automobiles are responsible for four times as many deaths (as passenger trains),” Saksa said.
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