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Speeches

Board Meeting : Philadelphia Amtrak 188 Derailment Accident, Opening Statement
Christopher A. Hart
NTSB Conference Center, Washington, DC
5/17/2016

​Good morning and welcome to the Boardroom of the National Transportation Safety Board. I am Christopher Hart, and it is my privilege to serve as Chairman of the NTSB. Joining me are Vice Chairman Bella Dinh-Zarr, Member Robert Sumwalt, and Member Earl Weener.

We welcome to the Boardroom FRA Administrator Sarah Feinberg and FRA Associate Administrator for Railroad Safety Robert Lauby. I would also like to welcome Amtrak Chief Executive Officer Joseph Boardman and his staff.

Today, we meet in open session, as required by the Government in the Sunshine Act, to consider the derailment of an Amtrak passenger train in Philadelphia a year ago last Thursday - on May 12, 2015.

Nearly 200 people were transported to local hospitals for treatment of their injuries, including dozens of severe injuries. Tragically, eight passengers died. On behalf of my fellow Board Members and the entire NTSB staff, I would like to offer our sincerest condolences to the family and friends of the passengers who were lost. Nothing can replace your loved ones, but we hope that this investigation helps us to prevent such tragedies in the future. We also hope for the fullest possible recovery for the many passengers who were injured.

After an exhaustive on-site investigation and extensive analysis, today’s meeting will examine all the facets of this derailment.

You will hear about the design of the accident train, including one feature that, in many circumstances, can provide a safety benefit: Windows that can be removed for emergency egress and access. In this accident, some of these windows dislodged as the derailed cars slid on their sides, allowing passengers to be fully or partially ejected. You will also hear about insights gleaned from our investigation of the emergency response to the derailment.

This train was traveling at 106 miles per hour on a curve with a 50 mile per hour speed limitation. Today we will discuss why. We will delve into the most complicated and unpredictable part of the transportation system -- the human being.

You will get a glimpse into the world of a passenger train engineer. It is a world in which the engineer relies in part on the memorized details of the route, and a world in which a loss of awareness can take a terrible toll.

It is a world in which people along the route sometimes throw rocks or other objects at locomotives. To be clear: Train 188 was not struck by rocks. Nevertheless, another nearby train was struck by rocks minutes before. And the consequences of this incident appear to have greatly influenced the engineer’s actions leading up to the derailment.

The engineer’s world is one of fallible human decisions and actions in an imperfect environment. The FRA has standards addressing hours of service and work rest cycles; controlling drug and alcohol use; prohibiting the use of personal electronic devices; and requiring recurring qualification and certification of locomotive engineers. These standards reduce the likelihood that engineers will be  fatigued, distracted, impaired, or otherwise not up to the task. As part of our investigation we looked for evidence of any departures from these rules by the engineer in this derailment.

But an engineer who is not fatigued, distracted, or impaired is still fallible, even on his or her best day. So our investigation explored whether the engineer in this derailment was backstopped by available safety technology, such as positive train control, or PTC. Very early in the investigation we learned that he was not.

PTC serves as a technological safety net for inevitable human error. It can protect trains from overspeed derailments like the one that we will discuss today, as well as collisions, incursions into work zones, and movement of a train through a switch that is in the wrong position. The NTSB has been recommending positive train control for more than 45 years, and its potential to save lives and prevent injuries has long been established.

At the time of the accident, PTC was not implemented on the portion of track where the derailment occurred, the Frankford Junction Curve. If a PTC system had been active there, this train would not have derailed on the curve. Close to two hundred passengers would not have been injured, and eight other passengers would be alive today.

So today we will hear the details of a tragedy that was enabled by this lack of technological protection.

After the derailment, Amtrak completed PTC implementation on the Northeast Corridor, except for 56 miles that is owned by the states of New York and Connecticut. Those 56 miles are targeted to be completed by the end of 2018.

But PTC has yet to be implemented on track that is owned not by Amtrak, but by so-called “host railroads.”  Outside of the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak operates on such track owned by freight and commuter host railroads.

We do not know which unprotected track will be the site of the next PTC-preventable derailment, collision, or worker death.

But we do know that the list of PTC-preventable accidents stretches back decades, involving both passenger and freight trains. In passenger rail alone we have most recently seen deadly PTC-preventable accidents in Chatsworth, California, on September 12, 2008; in the Bronx, New York, on December 1, 2013; and this derailment, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on May 12, 2015.

In 2008, after Chatsworth, Congress gave the railroads until the end of 2015 to implement PTC.  That deadline might not have prevented the derailment that we will discuss today, but it would have helped to prevent future tragedies.

Congress has extended this deadline to 2018, with the possibility of further extensions. But as we discuss our findings regarding this wholly preventable tragedy, let us keep in mind that the deadline that really matters is not 2018, and it is not some later date made possible by an additional extension.

The deadline that really matters is the date of the next PTC-preventable tragedy. Since 2008 we have seen 37 fatalities and hundreds of injuries in Chatsworth, the Bronx, and here, in Philadelphia.  I know that Administrator Feinberg agrees with me when I say to the railroad industry: End this list of PTC-preventable fatalities and injuries now.

Now Managing Director Tom Zoeller will introduce the staff.

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