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Sunday, May 17, 2015
Current Affairs ... Personal Reflections ...

It’s hard to get interested in, never mind emotionally connected with, all of the tragedies that you hear or read about in the media these days. The world is probably not more tragic than it ever was, but given how interconnected we are these days, we hear about most everything unfortunate thing that happens anywhere on the planet. Even the big ones like the recent earthquake(s) in Nepal often don’t get more than a minute or two of my attention on any given day.

So, I pick my tragedies based on personal connection. The recent train crash in Philadelphia made it to my personal interest list, because I was once a railroad buff like 32-year old Brandon Bostian, the Amtrak engineer who last Tuesday night drove his passenger train into a 50 mph curve while moving at about 106 mph. This caused a violent derailment that killed eight passengers and took the important Northeast Corridor line between New York and Philadelphia out of service for about a week. I also rode trains over that track quite a few times in my life, especially in the late 1970s when I lived in Arlington, Virginia and often took the train to visit my family in Jersey.

When I heard that a train using the same kind of passenger cars that I used to ride in had crashed, I immediately read up about it on the media web sites (I don’t get much of my news from radio or TV, as they seldom take the time to drill-down into the details). But being a train guy, I wanted more than the media could offer, and I knew where I could get to it. There are a variety of railfan discussion sites on the web, where both train buffs and actual railroad employees discuss real-life train operations. I chose the forums, which have an Amtrak section. And I wasn’t disappointed; the forum was buzzing with all sorts of comments, facts and speculations about the crash.

Some of this stuff was spurious, some was just plain wrong, some just fanciful speculation; but a lot of the stuff being discussed on this website was pretty detailed and relevant. A lot of the contributors are actual Amtrak employees who work (or used to work) on the line in question, i.e., the Northeast Corridor line thru North Philadelphia. The info coming on this site would otherwise be available only to officials and National Transportation Safety Board investigators.

But there are also dangers in getting down to this level of detail. First off, you aren’t completely sure what is accurate and what isn’t; people who know what they are talking about aren’t always easily distinguished from intelligent speculators (like myself). And even then, the experts and intelligent speculators on a site like this sometime start to jump to conclusions too early; it’s tempting because you have a lot of facts (more than most of the public has), but new facts are still coming in, and often change the entire complexion of what you thought was happening.

This happened to some of the participants on this web forum, and I myself was taken in by an early conclusion that turned out to have been wrong. Some forum members started discussing the track layouts where train 188 traveled as it approached the accident site, and the speed limits that the train was subject to. Although the press was publishing articles saying that the accident could have been avoided by a digital positive train control system, which is planned but has not yet been installed by Amtrak at the North Philadelphia location, the forum members realized that another type of speed warning and braking system already exists, and wondered why it hadn’t stopped train 188 from entering this curve at twice the appropriate speed.

Two important things seemed to emerge – one, the speed limit had gone from 80 mph to 110 mph just 3/10 of a mile before train 188 derailed; and second, Amtrak did not set up the existing protection system to enforce the 50 mph curve for trains headed for New York, even though it did have such a protection set-up for trains heading the other way, towards Philadelphia and Washington. The idea was that train engineers were responsible to know, even though the cab monitor may now say that the upper speed limit has become 110 mph, that there is still a curve that you have to slow down for before making the dash up to full speed.

Well, it thus seemed obvious what happened. It was dark outside, and the engineer must have gotten disoriented about where his train was. The cab monitors just flashed that the maximum speed limit was now 110 mph, so he obviously opened the throttle and gunned the train up to 106 mph, and only then remembered that there was still another curve to get thru. By then it was too late to avoid the tragedy. If only Amtrak had wired the existing speed warning system to enforce the curve speed (50 mph), maybe the accident wouldn’t have happened. But still, the engineer was responsible to know, and obviously he didn’t. At that time I had only read a little about the engineer, Mr. Bostian, and thus I quickly concluded that he was another Ricky Gates, the intoxicated young Conrail freight train engineer whose negligence caused a fatal passenger train crash along the same line (in Chase, Maryland) in 1987. (For some railfan inside dope on Mr. Gates, here is a 2004 forum discussion where Mr. Gates himself talks about his crime and punishment for the Chase indicent.) Back to Amtrak and Bostian – wow, what a major screw-up; in addition to huge legal liabilities, Amtrak would be severely chastised by the politicos, and who knows how many people would start choosing other ways to get to New York, Philly and Washington because of its negligence. And Bostian would face criminal manslaughter charges, no doubt.

But the next day (Thursday), new facts came out. The NTSB held a press conference releasing “black box” data about the train’s speed, and it turned out that train 188 started going over the 80 mph speed limit at least 2 miles before the start of the curve and the 110 mph limit. So, Bostian was not simply forgetting about the last curve — he started to gun the train’s throttle well before reaching it. The cab warning devices were already going off before the 50 mph speed limit for the curve began. However, those warning devices are not like the Positive Train Control system, which automatically slows trains down as soon as they exceed a speed limit. Instead, the existing system gives the engineer somewhere between 30 seconds and a minute to acknowledge the violation and start braking. Only if this doesn’t happen will the system start braking itself.

Obviously, Mr. Bostian did not acknowledge these warning signals, and the train continued to accelerate. Bostian certainly was violating his normal responsibilities, but it wasn’t simply a case of negligent forgetfulness or inattention (Bostian was found to be clean of any intoxicants in the post-crash blood test). The lack of a 50 mph cab warning for train 188 was completely irrelevant, and the railfan forum participants recognized this very quickly.

But despite this, the Wall Street Journal ran an article the next day (Friday AM) regarding the lack of a special curve warning for northbound trains, implying that this could have prevented the accident. The railfan forums had already moved on; speculation remained about Bostian’s possible “lack of situation awareness” i.e. mistaking where his train was along the railroad line, but was also starting to focus on a “projectile theory”.

Several forum members noticed that the Amtrak engine that Bostian was running had significant window damage. Window damage was expected in a violent derailment like train 188 went through, but there were clearly other marks on the front engine windows that looked circular, indicating that a projectile (probably multiple projectiles) had hit the window at high speed and with great force. Could Bostian have temporarily lost control of the train because of some high-energy projectiles striking his cab window? That started to sound a lot more plausible to some of the forum members.

And also, it turns out, to the NTSB. At the Friday evening press conference, the NTSB rep said that they had called in the FBI to examine the cab window to determine what kind of projectile might have struck it. He noted that an assistant conductor on train 188 remembered hearing radio reports just before the accident that other nearby trains on this line had just been struck by projectiles; an engineer on one of these trains suggested that it could have been a bullet. Recall that reports of “rock throwing” at other trains near the time and place of the train 188 derailment were available on Wednesday; Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter was quick to state that such reports had nothing to do with what happened to train 188. Turns out that perhaps he was also jumping the gun.

Over these two days, we also learned a lot more about Brandon Bostian. He turns out to be nothing at all like Ricky Gates. He was a devoted railroad buff in his childhood (like me), and he decided that he wanted to make a career on the railroads (as I had done in my high school and early college years). After graduating from college, he got his break on Amtrak, and was a very loyal and devoted employee. He at first was a train ticket collector and then a conductor, and worked his way up to being an engineer. He was noted for his devotion to procedures, and boasted how he used written checklists to make sure everything was in order prior to moving a train. He was also a frequent contributor to some railroad forums (especially the site), and was noted for urging improved safety procedures and systems, including the full roll-out of positive train control systems that immediately respond to any speed or movement violation (he is bwb6df on this discussion).

The NTSB just interviewed Bostian and called him “extremely cooperative”, although he claims not to remember what happened in the last few seconds before the crash (due to injuries sustained during the crash – which other railroad engineers on the forum agree could legitimately happen).

In the near future, the NTSB and FBI will decide what happened and will issue a detailed report. However, until then, the best we have remains the railroad forums. They presently note that the SEPTA commuter line released a photo of windshield damage that its train sustained within a few minutes of the 188 crash (see below, comparing SEPTA engine with Train 188’s loco).

Notice that the round impact looks much like some of the impacts to the train 188 engine – suggesting that gun shots are a very realistic possibility here. Some of the railroad men on the forum say that they know other engineers who experienced gunshots at their cabs in this area. Luckily, the very heavily laminated windows on modern train engines are designed to take a bullet (although some speculate that a small machine gun like an AK47 at close range would penetrate these windows). Still, it is not impossible according to the railmen that a hand gun bullet could cause the inner window to break and spray particles at high speeds at the engineer, causing injury even if the bullet is stopped.

At the very least, there would be severe disorientation – the other engineers agreed that the first instinct when your engine cab is hit by a brick or heavy rock is to jump to the floor. There is only one person in the cab in modern railroad locos; you are all alone, unlike in an airliner. Personally, I think that having multiple bullets suddenly hitting your loco would be even more frightening than a rock or brick (although that is mere speculation on my part – either scenario would not be pleasant in a train rolling along at 70 or 80 mph).

Perhaps Mr. Bostian was physically injured because of a projectile strike, and thus temporarily lost control of his locomotive. Or maybe it was a panic reaction. He was fairly new to working on the Corridor route through Philadelphia. He may not yet have “seen it all”, and reacted badly to suddenly being in a war-like scenario. The forum members suggest that railroads (including Amtrak) do not yet require engineers to go thru simulation exercises for terrorist-like attacks. You thus don’t know how you are going to respond until it happens to you. Personally, I would probably panic if I were in a train cab all alone in the dark, and I suddenly realized that my cab was being shot at multiple times by someone with a gun. In my panic, I would probably have pulled back on the throttle to speed up, an instinctual flee response. Could this have been what happened to Mr. Bostian? And how many “old head” veterans would be able to keep their cool in such a situation?

We shall see. Again, as new facts come in, we must be ready to ditch our prejudices and look at things in a new light. But what if Mr. Bostian was subject to a terrorist-like gun attack from someone standing along the tracks? You might say that I am using inflammatory words here, but once someone starts using a gun against a passenger train, we are in a different league than the usual vandalism from kids throwing rocks. Suppose the train 188 accident were caused by a religious terrorist who blew up the track ahead of the train on a 100 mph stretch of track – the result would have been the same as what actually happened last Tuesday night. So, I don’t think that the use of the word “terror” here is inappropriate, even if a (possible, not confirmed) gun wielder was acting from motives different than an Al Qaeda or ISIS sympathizer might have.

Yes, I am getting too far ahead of things, even ahead of what the forum guys are saying and speculating right now. But I’m trying to get people ready IF it is now the case that Amtrak trains in Philadelphia (and possibly other urban areas) are subject to gunfire from local residents. There could be some pretty bad implications from this, and I suspect that Mayor Nutter is already thinking about them (again, recall how quickly he tried to dismiss the notion that the 188 crash had anything to do with projectiles potentially hurled by local residents). Is this part of an escalation of the violence that occurred recently in Ferguson, Baltimore and other places in response to racial anger over police incidents? Things could get ugly.

Admittedly, for now it’s best to calm down and await the NTSB report. There are still a lot of alternative explanations that could turn out to be right; perhaps a medical condition on Mr. Bostian’s part, perhaps an equipment failure in the locomotive control devices. Or perhaps Mr. Bostian just forget where he was after a long day (he had drove a train down from NY to Washington earlier in the day, and had various electrical failures that caused delays and additional work on his part).

Still, it will be interesting to hear what the FBI has to say about those circular window damage patterns. And with maximum hindsight, it’s interesting for me to ponder the notion that perhaps it’s best that I didn’t do what Mr. Bostian did, i.e. follow my childhood dreams to a life on the railroad.

MONDAY UPDATE: OK, the FBI sez no evidence of bullets; but they can’t rule out other kinds of projectiles having hit the window. Hmm, OK, so back to rock-throwers. Still . . . the photo above appears to show between three and five impacts to the Amtrak loco front windows. A railroad guy on the forum made the point that it really isn’t all that easy for someone standing next to a railroad track in the dark with a train approaching at 75 mph to get a big rock or brick to hit the windshield. There must have been a whole lot of people lined up along the tracks throwing stuff that night (and maybe 1 in 3 got a hit), or someone figured out a way to dump a wheelbarrel load of rocks or bricks off of a bridge, at exactly the right instant. This one is definitely a head-scratcher.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 5:10 pm      

  1. Jim, A good summary of the situation re the train wreck in Pennsylvania up to the point you wrote the post. By this time you must have heard that the FBI (or is the NTSB?? don’t know which) has decided that no projectile hit the train – at least one that would cause the derailment – or so I hear on the news tonight. (One never knows exactly how accurate initial news is as it often is delivered hastily to get the “exclusive” on the story. Whether the “exclusive” is right or wrong does not seem to matter.)

    Unfortunately, unless the engineer can eventually remember precisely what happened after he recovers further from the accident, the whole thing may be classified as “human error”, thus blaming the engineer. I often think that when there is no precise evidence of something that very likely could have occurred the easiest “out” for those in charge of figuring out what happened is to declare “human error”, which often reads to me as “we just don’t know” or “we don’t have enough evidence to prove one thing or another”.

    I often wonder if some of these serious accidents that happen could be caused by something that gets “covered over” by the wreckage and is never even known. For example: Just today on our news in the Chicago area the ground gave way underneath a elevated train (this one running on the ground, obviously). Suppose this serious problem had not been found in time and there was some train that ran on these tracks that derailed due to the ground that gave way. It would be difficult to determine in all the wreckage the fact that it was the ground that gave way that caused the accident. Again, likely it would be judged to be “human error” when truly it was not human error.

    In our society it seems there must always be a place to lay blame, and people are eager to do just that. I do hope that the judgment in this case is not written hastily, but investigated thoroughly and completely and that the truth of what occurred really comes out before “human error” becomes the judgment where blame is laid. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — May 18, 2015 @ 6:18 pm

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