A passenger train derailment near Philadelphia on the night of May 12, 2015, claimed several lives and sent dozens of people to hospitals with injuries ranging from minor to life-threatening. No explanation is yet available for what caused New York-bound Amtrak 188 to jump the rails, but investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board, railroad company, state police and other organizations will need to consider whether the train carrying 243 passengers and crew members was traveling at an unsafe speed, whether braking systems malfunctioned and whether the tracks were damaged in some way before the crash.
By May 14, the death toll from the wreck, in which the locomotive and all seven rail cars making up the train derailed and flipped, stood at eight. More than 200 people injured the crash needed medical treatment. Emergency responders remained on the scene into the day to search for victims.
An analysis of passenger rail safety posted to the Washington Post website shortly after the accident notes that nine Amtrak trains have derailed since the beginning of 2015. The number of cross-country and short-haul freight train derailments this year is far higher, with wrecks involving oil tank cars causing particular concern. The author of the Post piece pointed toward "America’s crumbling transportation infrastructure" as the leading cause for the accidents that have resulted in numerous death, injuries to railroad employees, and fires and environmental damage.
This conclusion echoes a warning issued by the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division in March, who said that poorly maintained rails, rail ties, and track beds were to blame for a majority of all train derailments.
Again, it is too early to pin the blame for this Amtrak crash on broken or deteriorating rails. The railroad tracks through Philadelphia, like the roads, have posted speed limits. Going too fast can make taking curves safely or responding to changing traffic conditions can appropriately impossible, simply because slowing and stopping a train requires so much time and distance. Evidence disclosed by federal investigators the afternoon following the deadly crash indicates that the train may have been going 106 mph around a curve where the highest safe speed is 50 mph.
Also, while federal regulators have long pushed for automated and remotely controlled braking systems on rail cars, rail corporations have been slow (and often obstinate) in upgrading to technology known as positive train control.
Whatever happened to cause the fatal Amtrak derailment, my Virginia railroad injury and wrongful death attorney colleagues and I send our sympathies out to the victim. We also want to take this opportunity to once more urge all railroad companies, from Amtrak and CSX to Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific, to learn lesson about improving their operations from this tragedy.