Cause and Effect? The Derailment of Amtrak 188

CSX Freight Train

It’s unclear whether something did or did not hit the front window of Amtrak Train 188 prior to its fatal derailment in North Philadelphia. What is clear is that whatever caused the tragedy on the night of May 12, 8 people died a result, and scores more were injured. One of those killed was the former college roommate of a close friend. Somebody owns those deaths and injuries, and the focus right now is on the man who had his hand on the throttle, as it probably should be.

But if something did hit the train, and if it is found to have been a factor in the derailment, it will come as no surprise to anybody who has ever operated a passenger train at night at high speeds. Projectiles launched at trains, and objects placed deliberately or accidentally in their path, have plagued rail transportation systems as long as there have been trains. As reported in this past Sunday’s New York Times, “getting rocked” is the term assigned to these incidents by Amtrak veterans, and it is something they take very seriously. 

Suspiciously, the Amtrak engineer has no recollection of the moments leading up to the derailment, although federal investigators say he has an excellent work record and is cooperating fully. At issue is how and why his train rapidly accelerated to well over 100mph as it approached a curve with a speed restriction of 50mph. Was it an intentional act on his part? Was he somehow incapacitated or distracted? And why didn’t the train slow down automatically? 

Much has been written about the lack of automated systems designed to correct “overspeed” on that northbound section of track, systems that are in place throughout much of Amtrak’s network (including the immediately adjacent southbound track). Automatic Train Control (ATC) ensures that even when operated manually, a train cannot exceed the maximum safe speed for any particular section of track. It also ensures that trains maintain a safe distance from each other, and that wayside and cab signals are not violated. 

ATC would have prevented all but the most criminally negligent or determined operator from taking that curve at such a reckless speed. Reportedly, there were technical issues with extending ATC to that particular section of northbound track. 

Because of that, I’m assuming that Amtrak 188 was being operated manually, governed solely by the engineer’s observation of wayside and cab signals. Nothing prevented the unsafe operation of that train beyond the engineer’s training and professionalism, his adherence to the rulebook, his familiarity with the route, and his physical interactions with the train controls.

FBI and NTSB investigators are looking into reports that Amtrak 188 was one of three trains struck by objects in separate incidents within the same general timeframe and location that night. If true, it begs the qustion– could an object striking the engineer’s windshield somehow interfere with his ability to slow the train as it approached the curve? While I’m certainly not an expert, I have a somewhat informed opinion on that, based on personal experience. 

In the late 1970's, I worked as a train operator for the PATCO High-Speed Line, a light rail commuter line connecting the bedroom communities of southern New Jersey with subway stations in center city Philadelphia. When it began operations in 1969, PATCO was the first transit system in the nation to implement Automatic Train Operation (ATO) in normal revenue service. 

During one typical late night shift sometime in 1977, I was operating a Philadelphia-bound train in the long elevated stretch between stations at Ferry Avenue and Broadway, Camden. The abrupt transition from the quiet, tree lined streets of the more affluent communities to the east and the urban blight that Camden had become was striking, as was the irony of speeding past Walt Whitman's grave in the midst of that desolation. 

To avoid the railroader’s version of highway hypnosis, I always kept my eyes moving, focusing my attention not on the horizon, but on possible track obstructions, trespassers and potential "jumpers" just beyond the reach of the train's headlights in the middle distance. A sad consequence of working on the railroad was the realization that while some individuals were looking to start trouble by throwing things at a train, others were looking to end their troubled lives by throwing themselves in front of one. 

PATCO trains featured an open operator's cab on the front left side of the passenger compartment, separated from the rest of the interior by an opaque curtain that could either be open or closed. The best seat in the house for any passenger interested in seeing where they were going and how everything worked was just across the aisle to the right of the cab, with a front-facing window as big as the one the operator peered through.

As we approached the tunnel entrance that would lead to the two subterranean stations beneath downtown Camden, a frighteningly loud explosion and concussive pulse pounded the front of my train. It was completely startling, and it took me a few seconds to recover and react. I punched the Emergency Stop button on the console, venting the brake pipe with a loud hiss. I pulled the curtain back as we came to a hard stop, having absolutely no idea what might be waiting for me on the other side.

Directly across the aisle, an elderly couple occupied the front seat. They were staring straight ahead, not moving or talking, and they seemed to be in a mild state of shock. An egg had hit the window dead center at eye level two feet in front of them. An egg.

Once they snapped out of it, we shared a good laugh about what had happened. I reported the incident to the dispatcher by train phone as we resumed the trip to Philly. All in all, I was lucky that night.  I had gained some important knowledge about kinetic energy and the aerodynamic properties of a perfectly thrown egg.

A few weeks later, though, one of my colleagues didn’t get off quite as easily. Some joker decided it would be fun to drop a bowling ball from an overpass as his train passed underneath. It smashed through the windshield, bounced off the control console, and hit the operator just under the ribcage. He was standing at the time, which was very fortunate. Had he been seated, he would have taken 16 pounds of hard rubber square in the face. He was not seriously injured, but he was quite seriously shaken up. 

The list of incidents like these goes on and on, and unfortunately, it’s not strictly limited to encounters with inanimate objects. It’s probably best that I not relate the details of the several suicides that occurred during my time on the railroad. 

If early reports are to be believed, a hard, grapefruit sized object may have struck the windshield of Amtrak 188 the night of May 12. Arguably, it may have happened at precisely the point where braking would normally have been initiated going into the curve. I remember how dramatically frightening a simple egg hit had been all those years ago, and how I froze for a few seconds before dumping the brakes. I can only begin to imagine what a larger, solid object must have sounded and felt like to that engineer. Because of that, and for what it’s worth, I’m willing to give this guy the benefit of the doubt until some irrefutable evidence is released that proves otherwise. 

The New York Times ended their report on Sunday with a quote from a retired Amtrak engineer who had made hundreds of trips along the same route and was thoroughly familiar with the curve. He said

  Usually, you just leave the throttle open until you get up to 80 miles per hour, then put on the brake for the curve. Seems reasonable that something happened right about that time he would have started slowing down that kept him from taking the throttle off. He was startled by the impact or whatever. And by the time he realized it, it was too late.”

Seems reasonable.


Randall ArmorComment