Who’s to Blame for Amtrak 188?

The deadly Amtrak derailment is the product of a system that doesn't take public transportation seriously.

Emergency personnel at the site of the deadly Amtrak crash in Philadelphia earlier this month. Joseph Kaczmarek / AP / Corbis

Every industrial accident is different in its details, but depressingly similar in the cover-up.

Before the dust settles and the debris is cleared away, the company spokesperson is busy framing the story and assigning blame. The media are quick to join the feeding frenzy — and the responsibility always stops at the employee farthest down the food chain. On the railroads, that worker is often the engineer.

On Amtrak 188 on May 12, that engineer was Brandon Bostian. Bostian’s public trial began almost immediately. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter didn’t have — or seem to care about — any evidence, but he knew where to point the finger: “Clearly, he was reckless and irresponsible in his actions. I don’t know what was going on with him. I don’t know what was going on in the cab. But there’s really no excuse.”

At this point, the engineer’s safety record is usually trotted out. In the operating department, “safety violations” litter the records of even the most conscientious employees. Improper footwear, stepping on a rail, failure to ring the bell over one of the hundreds of grade crossings — all of these mean violations placed in a personnel file. Citations are easy to come by. Like a hound dog picks up fleas, conductors and engineers pick up safety violations.

The problem with Bostian is that his record was spotless. So something else had to be dragged into the equation. That something proved to be his sexual orientation, which conservative radio host Sandy Rios and later other right-wing media declared was a factor in the crash.

While most people now know that Bostian was a supporter of marriage equality, few know he was a safety fanatic. In addition to the normal routine, he had his own procedures. “At work, I run through a five-item checklist after I check my engine, and before I touch anything,” he wrote on Facebook. “Then a 10-item checklist before I move the train an inch.”

On the day of the accident, because of over-scheduling and a delayed inbound train, Bostian had only thirty minutes between runs. When it’s to their advantage, trainmasters and other company officials put constant pressure on workers to short-circuit safety inspections and “get out of Dodge.” May 12 may well have been such a day.

Clearly, Bostian was a model employee. Just before hitting the curve at Frankford Junction, he was complying with the rulebook and ringing the engine bell through the 30th Street Station. This isn’t the behavior of a reckless and irresponsible engineer. This isn’t the action of someone about to accelerate from the posted speed to 106 miles per hour less than a minute later.

Whatever happened to Bostian — after suffering a concussion in the crash, he has said that he remembers little about what took place in the minutes before the derailment — we must look elsewhere in placing the blame for this tragic accident.

In 2008 Congress instructed the nation’s railroads to install Positive Train Control (PTC) by 2015. Positive Train Control is a sophisticated system for monitoring and controlling train speed and separation, and collision avoidance.

From the start, the carriers dragged their feet. Rather than spend money on making it happen, they invested in a small army of lobbyists to make sure the mandate would take as long as possible to implement. The list of lobbyists is a who’s who of Washington insiders, including former Democratic Rep. William Lipinski and Linda Daschle, the wife of highly connected former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

Heedless of safety concerns and unmoved by the Metro-North accident of 2013 that killed four people in the Bronx — another tragedy that PTC could have prevented — these lobbyists have succeeded in buying time. Under legislation passed by the Senate Finance Committee and now pending before Congress, the deadline for implementing PTC would be extended to 2020.

Within hours of the May 12 crash, the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee approved a bill that slashed Amtrak’s budget for the next fiscal year by $251 million, to $1.1 billion.

Short of PTC, there are other, older forms of train control dating back to the 1960s. In my thirty-eight years on the railroad, I worked with two of them: Automatic Train Control (ATC) and Automatic Train Stop (ATS). Either of these systems would have prevented the derailment of Amtrak 188.

ATC was already in use on the southbound track, just on the other side of the deadly curve that train 188 hit at twice the speed limit. If the system had been positioned in advance of the accident site, the train would have stopped automatically if the engineer didn’t respond immediately to a warning bell.

The railroad knew just how dangerous this curve was. The Frankford Junction wreck — which resulted in the death of seventy-nine people — occurred at the same spot seventy-two years ago. So why wasn’t the ATC system in place?

In addition, as recently as the late 1980s, every commuter train in the Chicago Metra system had a second person in the engine cab. Although still known as a “fireman,” this second employee was in reality a second engineer. Having just one person in the cab leaves no room for unforeseen events that can have disastrous consequences. What happens if the engineer has a heart attack, a seizure, an aneurysm — or, yes, simply falls asleep?

In March 1987, during the effort to eliminate the fireman’s position in the cab, Metra spokesperson Christopher Knapton told the Chicago Tribune, “One-person crews have shown no decline in safety.” I doubt if the eight dead passengers in Philadelphia would second Knapton’s opinion.

US railroads are not the moribund proposition that they are often portrayed to be — especially by political leaders looking to slash funding. Freight traffic, measured in ton miles, is at or near record levels.

But here, too, shortcuts and downsizing crews are the modus operandi. The Lac Mégantic train disaster of July 2013 killed forty-two people and leveled a small town in Quebec when a seventy-four-car train carrying Bakken Formation crude oil derailed and exploded. For all intents and purposes, trains like these are rolling bombs, yet they routinely pass through the heart of Chicago and other major cities.

The train that demolished Lac Mégantic was another case of an “engineer-only” operation. Imagine the captain of a 747 announcing, “In the interest of saving money, we’ll be flying without a co-pilot today. We appreciate you choosing to fly with us.” Yet the railroad companies want to run freight trains capable of destroying a small city or passenger trains, carrying a thousand or more commuters that are the exclusive responsibility of one person.

For the five or six big railroad companies that remain in North America, accidents, even calamitous ones like the one in Quebec, are seen as part of the cost of doing business. It’s easier and cheaper to pay claims than to implement necessary safety measures.

As long as the companies can run high-revenue unit trains — that is, made up of one type of freight, such as oil or coal — from one point to the next without any messy stops in between, the money will keep rolling in. To do this, high-speed rail isn’t needed; fifty or sixty miles per hour will do nicely. There is no incentive for bullet trains.

Warren Buffett has a nose for profit — that’s why he directed his Berkshire Hathaway investment firm to spend $26.5 billion to buy the Burlington Northern Santa Fe. Buffett and the CEOs of the major freight carriers see passenger trains as a distraction from their profit-making. They would rather have Amtrak go the way of the stagecoach and get off “their” rails.

Nowhere in the world does efficient passenger service exist without government assistance. Most countries see this as an important public good. Until the US begins to invest in the infrastructure, technology, and human resources needed to run a twenty-first century passenger service, Amtrak 188 will not be the last catastrophe.