Jun 10 5:53 PM

NTSB: Engineer not on phone before fatal derailment

Emergency workers inspect engine of the derailed Amtrak train in Philadelphia the day after the accident. Federal investigators revealed Wednesday that the engineer was not using his mobile phone in the time leading up to the crash.
Lucas Jackson / Reuters

Officials investigating last month’s Amtrak commuter train accident said Wednesday that there was no evidence the engineer was talking or texting on his mobile phone while he was operating the locomotive. Amtrak Train 188 from Washington, D.C. to New York City derailed May 12 after entering a curve at more than twice the posted 50-mile-per-hour speed limit, leaving eight dead and more than 200 injured.

T. Bella Dinh-Zarr, vice chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), told a Senate commerce committee hearing that an examination of the engineer’s phone ruled out talk, text or data usage in the time leading up to the derailment. Records also show that the engineer did not access the train’s Wi-Fi system during that period.

The agency was still examining over 400,000 metadata files on the phone to determine if any offline activity, “like the use of an app,” had occurred, said Dinh-Zarr.

The Amtrak engineer, Brandon Bostian, suffered a head injury in the accident and is reported not to remember the moments before the crash. He told safety investigators he kept his mobile phone in a bag and only used it after the derailment to call 911. Bostian, who the NTSB says is cooperating with the inquiry, turned over his phone and provided the access code to investigators.

Determination of phone usage was apparently slowed because phone records do not necessarily match time signatures to phone activity. Voice calls and texting might be logged in different time zones, and neither might coincide with the time zone where the phone was used.

Federal investigators continue to focus on human error as the most likely cause of the accident, previously stating that they found no evidence of mechanical failure on the locomotive or the tracks. But NTSB officials reiterated that the accident could have been prevented if a safety technology known as Positive Train Control (PTC) had been installed in the area of the derailment. PTC — a system of sensors and communications tools that track train speed and location to prevent collisions and speed-related derailments — was mandated for most United States rail lines by a 2008 law, with a deadline of December 2015 for full implementation.

But only parts of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor currently have PTC installed and operational, and the section of tack in North Philadelphia where May’s derailment occurred was not one of them.

However, Automatic Train Control (ATC) — a reactive safety system that would be part of a future PTC network — was installed and functioning on the southbound side of the tracks at the accident site, but not on the northbound section, where it could have prevented the derailment. ATC monitors a train’s speed on the tracks and alerts the engineer; if the train does not slow, ATC automatically stops the train.

After the accident, Amtrak was quick to defend their decision not to install ATC on the northbound side. The assumption was that trains heading north out of the North Philadelphia station would not have time to accelerate to unsafe speeds in the relatively short distance before the tight, 50-mph curve.

But an Al Jazeera analysis determined Amtrak’s decision was based on decades-old logic. The derailed train was pulled by an 8,600 horsepower “Cities Sprinter” locomotive touted by its manufacturer for its high rate of acceleration, while assessments on ATC placement were made when older equipment was in use. The Cities Sprinters began replacing 25- to 35-year-old locomotives in February 2014.

Still, Amtrak is on schedule to meet the end-of-year deadline for installation of Positive Train Control along the entire Northeast Corridor — and that puts them well ahead of the vast majority of U.S. rail lines. Commuter systems, such as the New York metropolitan area’s Metro North and Long Island Railroad, have asked Congress for an extension of the deadline through 2018, citing cost and technology delays. Most of the exponentially more profitable freight railroads say they will not be able to realize PTC requirements until 2020.

Bills are moving through Congress to push back the deadline on PTC, with the debate settling on whether there should be a two-, three-, or five-year across-the-board extension. Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) officials told Al Jazeera that they would recommend extensions granted on a case-by-case basis, rather than a blanket waiver.

Still, with all this evidence in hand, a House committee refused last month to restore Amtrak’s budget to facilitate more safety improvements. Instead, on Tuesday, the full House passed a transportation bill that included $9 million for Amtrak to install inward-facing cameras in locomotive cabs to watch train engineers.

An NTSB panel recommended the FRA adopt rules requiring cab cameras five years ago, but regulations have been slow to develop because of disagreements among members of an industry-labor advisory board. Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman said recently his railroad would install cameras on its own.

For PTC, however, nationwide installation appears many years and billions of dollars away, a point that outraged Senator Richard Blumenthal. “We’re a nation that put a man on the moon,” said the Connecticut Democrat during Wednesday’s hearing. “We are operating a vehicle remotely on Mars. But our railroads have not yet implemented a technology that is existing, feasible and affordable.”

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