Group of NTSB members at Amtrak derailment site

Mystery Surrounding the Amtrak 188 Derailment Continues

This week, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released an accident docket on the Amtrak 188 derailment. The docket contains about 2,000 pages of documents containing interview transcripts, factual reports, photographs, letters, and other material gathered by investigators.

Releasing the docket to the public signals a transition in the investigative process—most of the facts necessary for the investigation have been gathered. Now the NTSB can move ahead with analysis of those facts and come to a conclusion and an official probable cause report for the Amtrak 188 derailment.

The passengers and Amtrak staff harmed by this disaster, their families, and friends, as well as many others who are merely curious about the Amtrak 188 derailment, are all anxious for answers. The NTSB docket only contains factual findings and does not offer any conclusions. However, scrutiny of the information reveals: there is no smoking gun.

 What We Know About the Amtrak 188 Derailment and the Engineer in Charge

What we know for certain is that Amtrak 188 was going too fast into a curve—more than double the posted speed limit for what is considered to be one of the sharpest curves in the Northeast Corridor. Speed entering the turn caused the train to derail. Some of the passenger cars overturned onto their sides. Eight lives were tragically cut short and hundreds of others were injured as a result of the Amtrak 188 derailment.

We know the immediate cause of this tragedy. But even with the release of thousands of pages of investigative documents, we still aren’t any closer to understanding why this happened. It appears that the mystery of Amtrak 188 derailment can only be unlocked by engineer Brandon Bostian, who told investigators in multiple interviews that he doesn’t remember the key moments prior to the accident when the train’s speed increased rather than decreased heading straight into the curve in the tracks at Frankford Junction.

It might seem easy to balk at Bostian’s amnesia, but there are a good number of reasons why the 32-year-old engineer’s credibility might hold up. NTSB officials told the media this week that Bostian was extremely cooperative during the accident investigation. Many who know him best are simply dumbfounded that someone as eager and prepared as Bostian could have let this happen. He told a witness immediately after the crash that he could not remember the events, and he most assuredly suffered a significant concussion in the accident.

As noted in the highly recommended New York Times Magazine expose on the Amtrak 188 derailment, there was never a time in Bostian’s life when he did not dream of a career on the railroad. At the University of Missouri, when other students were out soaking up college life, he spent his nights in his dorm room playing train simulators on his computer.

His dream of a life on the rails began to take shape in his senior year of college when he worked part-time as a brakeman for a regional railroad. Bostian’s career would continue to blossom from there as he took a conductor job with Amtrak, then later migrated to California to work for Caltrain.

In 2012, he moved again to return to work for Amtrak in the Northeast Corridor. His ascent to working the Northeast Corridor, which is Amtrak’s busiest line, is likely tied to the dedication and love he had for the railroad. A fellow engineer described Bostian’s devotion to the work as being unusual. “For a lot of people, this is a job. Clock in, clock out.” But for Bostian, his fellow engineer said, this was way more to him than just a job.

Another colleague speculated that when Bostian got the Northeast Corridor post, he had finally achieved his goal of being “in charge of the head end of a train on a major railroad. And having come that far, he wasn’t going to be distracted by anything.”

 Amtrak 188 Derailment Theories

Without input from Bostian on why the train gained speed into the curve, we are left to wonder just what might have happened to the engineer prior to the Amtrak 188 derailment. The NTSB seems to believe that the key to the investigation is what officials call “lost situational awareness,” which could have happened to Bostian in any number of ways.

Richard Beall, a longtime accident investigator has a plausible theory:

A train in the area just south of the Amtrak 188 derailment had been targeted with rocks—an event that rail workers call “getting rocked.” The rocking to this other train had been so bad that the locomotive’s thick windshield had spiderwebbed. One of Bostian’s last memories was of passing the train that had been rocked.

Beall believes that Bostian must have had the throttle open on a straightaway just south of Frankford Junction when a projectile hit the windshield. Even though the glass is thick, it would be human nature to duck when seeing something like that flying in your direction. Maybe in the process of ducking, Beall says, Bostian smacked his head against the dash and knocked himself out. Perhaps once he was finally able to come to and get his bearings, it was too late to slow the train in time to stop the Amtrak 188 derailment.

Further Questions about the Amtrak 188 Derailment

We can forever question the circumstances leading up to this disaster, but without Brandon Bostian’s recollection of events, we may never know exactly how this happened. On the other hand, Bostian’s story has gone from a total lack of memory to spotty memory. Surely, his memory will be further tested before this matter is put to bed.

And while some might feel justified blaming Bostian, there are still so many questions related to the Amtrak 188 derailment that, when answered, will help ensure that others will be protected from experiencing a tragedy like this again.

For example:

  • Why didn’t Amtrak require two persons in the cab of the locomotive at all times?
  • Why don’t Amtrak trains have restraints like airliners or tour buses? Seat belts continue to save lives in the air and on the ground. Why should train travel be different?
  • How was it that the seats became dislodged and flew throughout the passenger car so easily in the Amtrak 188 derailment? Amtrak should have to answer for this, as so many passenger injuries were sustained or made worse by unsecured seats, passengers, and debris flying through the passenger cars.
  • Should design improvements be considered to make for a safer train passenger environment? Without a doubt, the design of passenger cars needs to be closely examined.
  • Why didn’t the locomotive cab have an inward-facing camera or voice recorder? These, alone, could have solved the mystery of the Amtrak 188 derailment. Amtrak has since added inward-facing cameras to the majority of locomotives on the Northeast Corridor.
  • Why wasn’t the outward-facing camera on Amtrak 188 properly protected? Again, had the outward-facing camera been protected, it could have shed new light on the derailment investigation. Last June, the NTSB recommended that Amtrak install outward-facing cameras that are fire and crash protected.
  • Why did it take so little time for Positive Train Control (PTC)—a safety measure that experts say could have prevented this tragedy—to be installed in the Northeast Corridor after this disaster occurred? Knowing that it was possible to implement PTC within such a brief window, why were we told prior to this tragedy that full implementation of the technology was still years away? These are both questions that Amtrak should have to answer for. The NTSB and train safety experts all agree that PTC probably could have prevented this tragedy.
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