The engineer of the train involved in the 2016 Chester Amtrak train crash tested positive for drugs after the crash, officials have reported. According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) docket, Alexander Hunter tested positive for marijuana following the train’s collision with a backhoe (a positive test for opioids was reportedly caused by medication given following the accident). The NTSB docket, which was made public at the end of January, also pointed to miscommunications that resulted in the train being routed to a track it should not have been on, and failure to use devices to alert dispatchers about work on tracks as factors in the crash. Train safety has been in the news lately, with experts arguing that failure to implement technology designed to prevent train crashes has led to multiple fatal train crashes.
Chester Amtrak Train Crash Killed Two
Two men who were working on the railway at the time of the crash—Joseph Carter Jr., 61, and Peter John Adamovich, 59—were killed on April 3, 2016, when the southbound passenger train hit the backhoe being operated by Carter. Amtrak’s Palmetto train had left Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station at 7:32 a.m. with around 340 passengers and seven crewmembers and passed through Chester, Pennsylvania around 18 minutes later.
There are four tracks that pass through the area, but track No. 2 had been closed down for maintenance work. Track No. 3 was the one the train traveled along, but Carter and Adamovich had positioned the backhoe on the same track.
Hunter said he saw something on the track and pulled the emergency brake, but the train hit the backhoe and derailed. Carter and Adamovich died, while Hunter and 40 people on the train were treated in hospital for minor injuries.
“Then, you know, once I realized like—I knew—like, I could see, like when I got closer, that [the backhoe] was pretty well onto my track and I—you know, I knew I was going to hit him,” Hunter said to the NTSB two days after the accident. “I could feel the train lift up, and…I just kind of curled up in a ball in the deck of the locomotive and waited for it to stop.”
Immediately following the accident, a foreman called the dispatcher, wondering how a train had managed to be on secure tracks, but the dispatcher told him the tracks had been reopened for train traffic less than 30 minutes before the accident.
Although Hunter tested positive for opioids, that positive test was reportedly the result of morphine treatment for injuries sustained in the crash. The NTSB found that despite the presence of marijuana, Hunter responded to alerts and was attentive prior to the crash.
The two men who died were also found to have drugs in their system. Carter tested positive for cocaine while Adamovich tested positive for codeine, oxycodone, and morphine.
Drug Use by Rail Employees a Concern
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) reports that in 2014, there were no rail employees who tested positive for drug use following an accident. In 2015, two employees tested positive for drug use after an accident. In 2016, however, between five percent and eight percent of rail workers involved in accidents tested positive for illegal drug use. That same year an employee was found dead of an overdose of prescription drugs immediately following a briefing on his work duties for the day. Following the Chester Amtrak train crash, the FRA required track-bed maintenance workers to also be subject to the same drug test program that train crews have been required to undergo.
NTSB Report Identifies Miscommunications, Lack of Planning in Train Crash
Despite the positive drug tests, the NTSB docket showed issues with Amtrak and its supervisors. Among the factors NTSB identified:
- Miscommunication regarding safety protections for workers;
- Lack of briefing to explain to workers what safety precautions were in place;
- Lack of shunts, which would have alerted dispatchers to workers on the tracks; and
- Lack of adequate planning to deal with such extensive track maintenance.
The tracks should have been fouled (closed to trains), which would have prevented the train from being on the track that the backhoe sat on.
General Confusion About Fouling Tracks
According to the NTSB, night foreman William Robinson fouled tracks one, three, and four (meaning they were taken out of service). At around 7:30 a.m., Robinson cleared the three tracks to be opened, even though work on the tracks was continuing. If the radios had been working properly, the order to open the tracks would have gone out on radio and John Yaeger (the day foreman) would have heard the order and closed the tracks again. Because the radios were not working, Robinson made the call to the dispatcher on his cell phone, which prevented Yaeger from canceling the order to reopen the tracks.
Robinson said he had told Yaeger that the tracks were being opened again and Yaeger would have to close them. Yaeger said he did not know the tracks were open.
Although Hunter activated the emergency brake and sounded the horn, it was too late—by the time he saw the backhoe—to stop the train.
NTSB Investigation on Pennsylvania Train Crash to Continue
Although the NTSB has issued hundreds of pages of information related to the Chester Amtrak train crash, the agency is continuing the fact-gathering phase of its investigation and is expected to issue a final report, including its findings and recommendations, later in 2017.
Rail Safety Features Slowly Being Implemented
Rail safety has been widely discussed lately, with Congress requiring positive train control (PTC) on freight and commuter railroads. Because commuter railroads have been slow to adopt the technology—which is designed to prevent crashes—Congress gave the railroads an extension for implementation. Initially, a deadline of December 31, 2015, was given, but it was pushed back to December 31, 2018.
Failure to implement PTC, however, has been cited by experts as a factor in the Hoboken train accident (September 29, 2016) and the Texas Panhandle crash (June 28, 2016), both of which resulted in fatalities.