PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The Amtrak train that derailed along the nation’s busiest tracks may have been struck by an object in the moments before it crashed, investigators said Friday, raising new questions about the deadly accident.
National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt said an assistant conductor told investigators that she heard Amtrak engineer Brandon Bostian talking over the radio with an engineer for a regional railroad just before the crash.
The regional engineer, who was in the same area as the Amtrak train, said his train had been hit by a rock or some other projectile. The conductor heard Bostian say the same had happened to his Amtrak train, according to Sumwalt.
The windshield of the Amtrak train was shattered in the accident but one area of glass had a breakage pattern that could be consistent with being hit by an object, he said, and the FBI is investigating.
The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority does not yet know what caused the damage to its train that night, said Jerri Williams, a spokeswoman for the agency.
SEPTA trains traveling through the area – including one of the poorest and most violent parts of the city – have had projectiles thrown at them in the past, whether by vandals or teenagers, she said. It was unusual that the SEPTA train was forced to stop on Tuesday night.
The deadly Amtrak wreck has made it clear that despite the train industry’s widespread use of electronic signals, sensors and warning systems, safety still sometimes comes down to the knowledge and experience of the engineer at the controls.
Those skills would have been critical on the curve where the New York-bound train derailed, killing eight and injuring more than 200 in the deadliest U.S. train accident in nearly six years.
Instead of high-tech signals or automatic controls, engineers on that stretch of track have to rely on their familiarity with the route and a printed timetable they carry with them, not unlike engineers a century ago.
“We’re depending heavily on the human engineer to correctly obey and interpret the signals that he sees and also speed limits and other operating requirements,” said David B. Clarke, a railroad expert at the University of Tennessee.
The engineer of the train has told investigators that he does not recall the moments leading up to Tuesday night’s crash.
The conductor told the NTSB in an interview Friday that he felt comfortable with the train and was not fatigued, Sumwalt said.
In the minute before the derailment, the Amtrak train accelerated from 70 mph to more than 100 mph, even though the curve where it came off the tracks has a maximum speed of 50 mph.
Experts say the railroad’s signaling system would have slowed the train automatically if it had hit the maximum speed allowed on the line, but older cab-signal and train-control systems do not respond to localized speed restrictions.
Investigators are also conducting drug tests. Bostian’s lawyer has said he was not using drugs or alcohol.
Preliminary checks have not found any pre-existing problems with the train, the rail line or the signals.
Because of his experience, Bostian should have known the route, even if there’s not so much as a speed limit sign on the side of the tracks, said Howard Spier, a Miami-based lawyer who is a former president of the Academy of Rail Labor Attorneys.
“It’s engrained in them. He knew it,” Spier said. “I’m convinced he knew he was entering a speed-restrictive curve.”
The wreck has raised questions about positive train control, a system that automatically brakes trains going too fast. It is installed on the tracks where the train derailed, but it had not been turned on because further testing was needed, Amtrak President Joseph Boardman said.
Boardman said this week that he intends to have the system running across Amtrak by the end of this year, as Congress mandated back in 2008.
The system is already operating in other parts of the Northeast Corridor, the busy stretch of tracks between Boston and Washington. An older, less robust automatic-control system is in place for southbound trains in the same area as the derailment.
The last wrecked railcars from the deadly accident were removed Friday as Amtrak prepares to resume service on the line next week.
Also Friday, the first funeral was held for one of those killed in the wreck. U.S. Naval Academy midshipman Justin Zemser, 20, was laid to rest on Long Island. About 150 classmates from the academy joined his family and students from his New York City high school.