Satisfying answers have yet to emerge from the combined federal, state and local investigation into the fatal derailment of Amtrak Train 188 in the Richmond area of Philadelphia on May 12, 2015. Early speculation that the engineer increased his speed to double the posted limit of 55 mph around a sharp curve in the tracks to avoid shots or thrown debris proved unfounded. The longtime passenger railroad employee remains unable to provide other explanations because he suffered a traumatic brain injury in the crash. This leaves questions regarding why he took the bend at such an unsfe speed unanswered.
Despite that, Amtrak and regulators have already begun working to upgrade safety technologies and procedures that appeared to be lacking on that deadly night in mid-May. Automatic braking systems known collectively as positive train control are coming to the entire Northeast passenger rail corridor ahead of schedule. Cameras pointed into locomotive cabs, long resisted by railroad worker unions, will be installed by Amtrak, and other rail companies may soon follow suit. A push for straightening rights-of-way, repairing and replacing aging railroad bridges, and upgrading all track beds and railroad crossings has been reenergized.
None of those efforts will bring back the people killed in the Amtrak derailment, but each should contribute in significant ways to preventing future losses of lives. Focus also needs to turn toward to more than 200 passengers and crew members who survived the Philly derailment with injuries. Many of those individuals, including rail employees who deserve the most direct and immediate help from Amtrak, have had to resort to asking for charitable donations to pay medical bills and replace income lost to not being able to work.
Several victims of the train crash have also filed preliminary lawsuits against Amtrak. Doing so may be necessary to ensure that the railroad provides compensation adequate to cover medical cost, lifelong care, disability and, for families who lost loved ones, financial support previously provided by a deceased victim. As a Virginia-based personal injury and wrongful death attorney who has spent 30 years helping rail employees and railroad passengers hold companies accountable for negligence and recklessness, however, I know that the civil court cases stemming from the Amtrak disaster will take years to reach resolution. To cite just one discouraging example of this, the freight railroad Norfolk Southern took until 2008 to settle the first of many claims arising from a 2003 chemical train crash in Graniteville, South Carolina (SC), that left 9 people dead and 250 injured.
When a train jumps its tracks, the responses by the company involved needs to be immediate and multipronged. Be it CSX, Norfolk Southern or Amtrak, the railroad must determine the cause and fix any identified problems. At the same time, the corporation must reach out to victims, discover what they need in terms of financial and emotional support, and pay for all harm related to the accident without using legal tricks and stalling tactics to shirk liability and preserve profits.