Feds to vote on probable cause of deadly Amtrak derailment

In this Wednesday, May 13, 2015 file photo, emergency personnel work at the scene of a Tuesday night derailment in Philadelphia of an Amtrak train headed to New York. The National Transportation Safety Board is scheduled to meet Tuesday, May 17, 2016, to detail the probable cause of last year's fatal derailment. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The engineer of an Amtrak train that derailed in Philadelphia last year, killing eight people, was “greatly influenced” by an incident in which a nearby commuter train was struck by a rock, a federal regulator said Tuesday.

Christopher Hart, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, also said a key backup safety system, called positive train control, was not in place at the accident site and would have provided a “technological safety net for inevitable human error.”

“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,” Hart said in his opening remarks Tuesday as the board meets to detail the probable cause of the derailment.

Engineer Brandon Bostian told investigators after the derailment that he remembered radio traffic that night from a commuter train operator who said a rock had shattered his windshield.

Bostian’s attorney has not returned an email sent Monday seeking comment. An Amtrak spokesman said the agency will have a comment after the hearing.

Hart also said that the train’s emergency windows dislodged as the derailed train cars slid on their sides, allowing some passengers to be ejected.

The investigation found that police transported many of the injured people to the hospital, instead of waiting for ambulances, according to a U.S. official briefed on the NTSB report. The official was not authorized to comment publicly because of the ongoing probe and spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity.

The NTSB is expected to recommend that engineers be retrained about distractions and also recommend that the city wait for ambulances to take injured people to the hospital at mass-casualty incidents.

The city’s office of emergency management is finalizing a revised mass-casualty plan that will continue to allow police to transport victims, but will aim for better coordination with the fire department, said spokeswoman Noelle Foizen.

Investigators are looking into why the train from Washington to New York City was going double the 50 mph limit around a sharp curve about 10 minutes after leaving Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station.

Early in the investigation, the NTSB focused on whether the Amtrak train had been hit with a rock or other projectile minutes before the crash.

Bostian told investigators that he was concerned about the welfare of the commuter train’s engineer and “a little bit concerned” for his own safety, but he never indicated in either NTSB interview that his train had been struck too.

Bostian, regarded by friends for his safety-mindedness and love of railroading, apparently commented in an online forum for train enthusiasts on a range of industry issues, including safety. Some of the posts lamented that railroads hadn’t been fast enough to adopt technology that can prevent trains from going over the speed limit. The person behind the username signed a few of the posts “Brandon Bostian” or simply “Brandon,” though they were never definitively linked to him.

The engineer has been suspended without pay since the crash. A letter from Amtrak in the NTSB files shows he was suspended for speeding.

Positive train control is designed to automatically slow a train that’s exceeding the speed limit.

Amtrak has installed it on all the track it owns on the Northeast Corridor from Boston to Washington. A 56-mile stretch from New Rochelle, New York, to New Haven, Connecticut, is owned by other entities and is planned to have automatic controls installed by a deadline at the end of 2018.

“If PTC was in place on Frankford Junction on May 12, 2015, we would not be here today,” Ted Turpin, an NTSB investigator, said Tuesday.

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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