By Kim Smiley
On the evening of May 12, 2015, an Amtrak train derailed near Philadelphia, killing 8 and injuring more than 200. The investigation is still ongoing with significant information about the accident still unknown, but changes are already being implemented to help reduce the risk of future rail accidents and improve investigations.
Data collected from the train’s onboard event recorder shows that the train sped up in the moments before the accident until it was traveling 106 mph in a 50 mph zone where the train track curved. The excessive speed clearly played a role in the accident, but there has been little information released about why the train was traveling so fast going into a curve. The engineer controlling the train suffered a head injury during the accident and has stated that he has no recollection of the accident. The engineer was familiar with the route and appears to have had all required training and qualifications.
As a result of this accident and the difficulty determining exactly what happened, Amtrak has announced that cameras will be installed inside locomotives to record the actions of engineers. While the cameras may not directly reduce the risk of future accidents, the recorded data will help future investigations be more accurate and timely.
The excessive speed at the time of the accident is also fueling the ongoing debate about how trains should be controlled and the implementation of positive train control (PTC) systems that can automatically reduce speed. There was no PTC system in place at the curve in the northbound direction where the derailment occurred and experts have speculated that one would have prevented the accident. In 2008, Congress mandated nationwide installation and operation of positive train control systems by 2015. Prior to the recent accident, the Association of America Railroads stated that more than 80 percent of the track covered by the mandate will not have functional PTC systems by the deadline. The installation of PTC systems requires a large commitment of funds and resources as well as communication bandwidth that has been difficult to secure in some area and some think the end of year deadline is unrealistic. Congress is currently considering two different bills that would address some of the issues. The recent deadly crash is sure to be front and center in their debates.
In response to the recent accident, the Federal Railroad Administration ordered Amtrak to submit plans for PTC systems at all curves where the speed limit is 20 mph less than the track leading to the curve for the main Northeast Corridor (running between Washington, D.C. and Boston). Only time will tell how quickly positive train control systems will be implemented on the Northeast Corridor as well as the rest of the nation, and the debate on the best course of action will not be a simple one.
An initial Cause Map, a visual root cause analysis, can be created to capture the information that is known at this time. Additional information can easily be incorporated into the Cause Map as it becomes available. To view a high level initial Cause Map of this accident, click on “Download PDF”.