Was Amtrak Engineer on Cellphone Before Crash? Records Still Being Examined

(Los Angeles Times/TNS) -

The National Transportation Safety Board released a preliminary report Tuesday into the fatal derailment last month of an Amtrak passenger train in Philadelphia, but it offered no new insights into why the train was traveling at more than twice the speed limit when it went off the rails.

The brief report summarized the work of federal investigators in the May 12 crash of Amtrak Train No. 188 in Philadelphia. It emphasized that investigators continue to probe the crash and that they are reviewing cellphone records of the engineer, Brandon Bostian, to determine if he was using his cellphone to talk or text while the train was in motion.

Bostian’s attorney, Robert Goggin, said shortly after the crash that during the trip his client’s phone was off and stashed away, in accordance with federal railway rules. The train had left Washington’s Union Station shortly after 7:00 p.m., heading for New York City.

Eight passengers were killed when it derailed at 9:21 p.m. on a curve zoned for 50 mph. Investigators said data recorders showed the train was traveling at more than 100 mph as it entered the curve and that Bostian, who was injured, activated the emergency brake seconds before the crash.

“Although the records appear to indicate that calls were made, text messages sent, and data used on the day of the accident, investigators have not yet made a determination if there was any phone activity during the time the train was being operated,” the NTSB said. “Investigators are in the process of correlating the time stamps in the engineer’s cellphone records with multiple data sources, including the locomotive event recorder, the locomotive outward facing video, recorded radio communications, and surveillance video.”

Damage is estimated by Amtrak in excess of $9.2 million.

The NTSB’s report coincided with a congressional hearing in Washington into Amtrak safety. During that hearing Tuesday, Amtrak president and CEO Joseph Boardman said the railway is “committed to safety, and we operate a safe railroad.”

“This accident is so shocking because it’s so unexpected,” he said in prepared remarks. He noted that the last fatal accident on the busy Northeast Corridor was 28 years ago. “For 28 years, we have operated safely, without an accident-related passenger fatality, and we are now incorporating the lessons of this tragic failure,” Boardman said.

Last month’s crash called attention once again to the failure of railroads, including Amtrak, to install technology aimed at overriding human error and slowing or stopping speeding trains. Amtrak has vowed to have the technology, known as positive train control, in place by the end of this year, in accordance with a federal mandate.

Even without positive train control, Boardman said Amtrak had several safety measures in place. But he said, “The most important thing we can do to improve safety is to complete the work of installing” the system on the entire Northeast Corridor.

The NTSB has said it could take a year to complete its investigation into the crash and determine the cause. Among other things, it has been looking into reports that vandals may have thrown something that hit the locomotive before the crash.