Congressional hearing on Amtrak crash yields more questions than answers


A congressional hearing on the Amtrak train derailment that killed eight and injured hundreds in Philadelphia yielded more questions than answers. It also included a heavy dose of partisan sniping.

If an automatic braking system or positive train control had been in place, the system could have prevented the fatal May 12 derailment in Philadelphia, Amtrak President and CEO Joseph Boardman said Tuesday. The railroad will meet a federal deadline to implement those improvements on the Northeast Corridor — or NEC — by the end of year, he said.”I promise you, by the end of this year, the system which will enhance safety will be complete and enhance safety on the NEC,” Boardman said.U.S. Rep. Scott Perry of central Pennsylvania asked why the system hasn’t been put in place already.”This particular portion of the line makes anywhere from $400 million to $500 million a year, plus we give Amtrak to the tune of $1.3 billion to $2-point-something billion,” Perry said. “How come they can’t spend 10 percent of what they lost on food service on positive train control?”Perry, a Republican, was tussling with Democrats on the committee who have argued underfunding by Congress contributed to the crash.

There should be a second crew member in the cab during operation of a train, said Dennis Pierce of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.

“To monitor the left side of the train for defects, stuck brakes or observe the left side of the rail crossings for incidents,” he said.Christopher Hart, head of the National Transportation Safety Board, countered that there is no evidence a second person in the cab will help.”Our experience is limited, it would be based on accidents, and there haven’t been many two-person crews,” he said. “But from that limited experience, we don’t find two-person crews are an improvement over single-person crews.”Few conclusions

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

The question of why trains don’t have seatbelts also came up.  Acting Federal Railroad Administrator Sarah Feinberg said adding seatbelts would require replacing seats on every train at a cost of billions.”The hardening of the seats that would be required in order to put seatbelts on trains would actually cause more injuries in an accident,” she added. Final results of the investigation into the crash might not be ready for a year.  Officials say they still don’t know whether engineer Brandon Bostian was using his cell phone while at the controls.  That left many members of Congress nearly speechless and calling for an answer within two weeks  — or those involved  in the investigation will be brought back before the committee.

Meanwhile, a preliminary NTSB report released Tuesday said it also remains unclear if damage to the windshield was caused by the wreck or an object thrown at the train.

But it said investigators have found “no anomalies” in the tracks, signals or braking systems of train 188. 

The two-page preliminary report estimated damage from the May 12 crash at more than $9.2 million.

The NTSB says the train entered the 50-mph curve at 106 miles per hour, according to the report, which said Bostian braked seconds before the wreck.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal