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During Amtrak Derailment, Engineer Was Not On Cellphone, According To NTSB


We're learning more about the investigation into that Amtrak accident in Philadelphia last month that left eight people dead and injured dozens more. The National Transportation Safety Board announced this morning that investigators have concluded the engineer was not using his cell phone while operating the train. NPR correspondent Jeff Brady joins us from Philadelphia. Good morning.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: So that was, of course, much speculated on in the wake of this tragedy. What else did the NTSB say about that?

BRADY: Yeah, this question of whether engineer Brandon Bostian was using his cell phone, it's an important one. Train engineers aren't allowed to do that. And while Bostian says he doesn't remember the accident, he and his attorney have maintained that the phone was put away in a bag. And it took a while for investigators to confirm that. At first, they said the phone was used to make calls and send text messages the day of the accident. But then, investigators found that looking through the phone records to confirm that was complicated. The NTSB says the phone carrier has multiple systems that log different types of activity. And some of those are based in different time zones. So squaring all that information with the time of the accident and when the train was operating took more time than anticipated.

MONTAGNE: Well, of course, you can also get Wi-Fi on Amtrak trains. Did investigators make a special look at that as well?

BRADY: They did. And the NTSB says Bostian also did not access the Wi-Fi system. They do still have one piece of information they want to learn.

They want to know whether his phone was in airplane mode or turned off at the time of the accident. They're still trying to figure that out. We should also point out that the investigators say Bostian has cooperated with them. They say he gave them the pass code to his phone so they could access the data directly instead of forcing the NTSB to take the more complicated route of going through the manufacturer.

MONTAGNE: And with this news, where does this leave the investigation now?

BRADY: You know, we still have that big question of why did this train speed up to more than 100 miles per hour as it entered that 50 mile-per-hour curve? The NTSB says an investigation like this can take months to conclude. But they want to figure out what happened to prevent future accidents. In the meantime, regulators are beefing up safety on routes like this one between Philly and New York. The Federal Railroad Administration already ordered Amtrak to assess all the curves in the track along the busy Northeast Corridor and to install more speed limit signs. And Amtrak officials say they plan to have a technology that would automatically slow the train down installed by the end of this year. That's something all passenger railroads are required to have by the end of the year. A lot of them are behind schedule, though. But Amtrak is one of the railroads that says it still hopes to meet that deadline.

MONTAGNE: And the news today that Amtrak - the Amtrak engineer did not use his cell phone while operating the train comes after Congress voted - right after Congress voted - to cut Amtrak's budget by more than $240 million. Given this concern and these efforts about rail safety, what's going on there on Capitol Hill?

BRADY: Yeah, you know, and that congressional cut, it wasn't totally surprising 'cause there are plenty of people in Congress, especially on the GOP side, who think that the federal government should not be in the passenger rail business or be subsidizing passenger rail. You know, one interesting point in that debate, though, lawmakers also voted to allocate about $9 million for inward-facing cameras in locomotives. They already have the outward-facing cameras. So you can see what is the train was approaching, you know, at the time of the accident. But these inward-facing cameras, those are key here because investigators have said that if that camera was pointed at the engineer, it would've been much easier to determine what he was doing just before the accident.

MONTAGNE: NPR correspondent Jeff Brady joining us from Philadelphia. Thanks very much, Jeff.

BRADY: Thank you, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.