An Amtrak track maintenance crew member died when a train going full speed struck him. The deadly collision happened near the MARC station at Bowie State University in Maryland a little after 9 am on April 24, 2018.
According to news reports, the passenger train had recently left Washington, DC, on its way to New York City. When it sped past the Bowie State commuter rail station, it passed a MARC train headed toward the nation’s capital on a parallel track.
Three tracks run side-by-side at the scene of the fatal train crash. The watchman who died was standing on the middle track, which the Amtrak train was also using. The watchman’s job was to spot approaching trains and sound an airhorn to alert fellow crew members to clear the area in time to avoid injuries and deaths.
A federal law requires the use of watch standers whenever crews do track maintenance. Specifically, 49 C.F.R. 214.329(a) states
Train approach warning shall be given in sufficient time to enable each roadway worker to move to and occupy a previously arranged place of safety not less than 15 seconds before a train moving at the maximum authorized speed on that track can pass the location of the roadway worker. The place of safety to be occupied upon the approach of a train may not be on a track, unless working limits are established on that track.
The law goes on to state that the watch stander must pay full attention and keep up constant communication with other safety personnel. But the movement of the MARC train and the Amtrak train through the work zone at the same time could not help but divide the deceased worker’s attention. The information coming from the trains and dispatchers could also have been confusing or not fully up to the second.
Amtrak officials have declared that they are fully cooperating with inspectors from the National Transportation Board and the Federal Railroad Administration. All possible breakdowns in communication must be explored. Investigators should also ask whether more than one watchman was needed or provided, whether managers and supervisors fully trained the watchman, and whether the company adequately equipped the watchman with communication and signaling devices.
Any degree of negligence by Amtrak or its officials would create responsibility for settling wrongful death claims under a federal law called the Federal Employers Liability Act. Usually shortened to FELA, the law is often characterized as workers’ compensation for railroad workers. That is not quite accurate, but FELA does ensure that railroad corporations cannot put their employees at risk for suffering injuries or getting killed in on-the-job accidents without paying the consequences.
The family of the Amtrak track watchman who lost his life after being struck near the Bowie State MARC station may need to file a FELA lawsuit if the company refuses to step up and offer a fair settlement for the deadly accident. As Virginia-based FELA attorneys who have helped many injured rail employees and grieving loved ones, my colleagues and I hope this will not be necessary. While plaintiffs often succeed with FELA lawsuits, the process can drag on for years and go through multiple appeals. The family has already suffered an irreplaceable loss. Fighting through the courts to receive compensation and damages should not be added to their burden.