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Human Error Cited in Amtrak Crash That Killed 2, Hurt 35

Failure to activate a shunting device that would have signaled approaching trains to stop before from encountering a track maintenance crew is being cited as the error that set the stage for a fatal Amtrak crash in Chester, Pennsylvania (PA), on April 3, 2016. The passenger train traveling from New York City to Savanah, Georgia (GA), collided with a backhoe, killing the two people attending the construction vehicle. The engineer in the locomotive for Train 89 also suffered injuries that required hospital treatment, as did more than two dozen passengers.


The train was going 106 mph just before the wreck, which is slightly below the maximum speed allowed on the stretch of track near Booth Street in central Chester. Still, that speed indicates that the Amtrak crew aboard Train 89 never received any warning about the presence of maintenance-of-way workers ahead. Emergency braking seconds before impact failed to slow the train significantly.

The National Transportation Safety Board has taken the lead on investigating the deadly train accident, and officials have predicted that the first set of preliminary findings will not be ready for public review for several months. Despite that, evidence available from external and internal locomotive cameras, combined with eyewitness accounts, has led railroad industry experts to conclude that the wreck primarily occurred because key steps were not taken to ensure that signaling and positive train control (PTC) systems performed optimally.

The fullest description of what appears to have gone wrong currently appears in an article posted to the RailwayAge website. After explaining how establishing the shunt puts a chain of signals and multiparty communications into operation and engages electronic mechanisms designed to slow moving trains, the magazine quotes a veteran railroad engineer who wrote, "PTC is not the magic weapon that will end all accidents forever, as there is always something wrong with everything—even PTC. The devil is always in the details."

An act of negligence, ignoring standard safety procedures, would make Amtrak liable for paying wrongful death and personal injury claims filed under provisions of the Federal Employers' Liability Act. The passenger railroad would also be accountable to the passengers hurt in the Train 89 crash because common carriers have high legal obligations to protect the safety of customers.


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