Amtrak 188 crash UPDATE: Engineer remembers throttling up before crash

RELATED TOPICS: SAFETY | DERAILMENTS | AMTRAK | NORTHEAST
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Amtrak Northeast Regional train No. 188 on the morning after the May 12 derailment and crash.
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
WASHINGTON — Amtrak engineer Brandon Bostian has more than three years experience operating Northeast Corridor passenger trains day in and day out. But he'd only been in charge of a train with an ACS-64 locomotive "two dozen-ish times" the year before he crashed his train in Philadelphia last May.

That revelation was among 77 pages of oral testimony Bostian gave to National Transportation Safety Board investigators in May and again in November. Bostian was engineer for the Northeast Regional No. 188 train that derailed at 106 mph at Frankford Junction, Pa., northeast of Philadelphia on May 12. The crash killed eight passenger, injured dozens, and destroyed a train. The text of the questions and Bostian's responses were among the 164 exhibits and 2,193 pages released today by the NTSB on its website.

The documents the safety agency released do not make a conclusion about what happened that evening. That determination will come after NTSB members weigh all the evidence. Among the exhibits are a train derailment study, impact detector and event recorder reports, and a rail profile image sequence examining rail wear on the curve where the derailment took place. But the two Bostian interviews give a clearer picture of the circumstances surrounding the accident.

Bostian told the investigators that he primarily was assigned round-trips out of his New York crew base to Washington, D.C., on Acela Express trainsets in both directions. It was only after he “bumped” into different assignments during the previous month that he would “very very sporadically” draw an ACS-64.

His most-recent Thursday through Tuesday work weeks in the month prior to the accident had involved running an Acela from New York to Washington and returning at the head of either train 90, the Palmetto, on the weekends, or Northeast Regional no. 198 on weekdays (the latter train has since been discontinued and combined with no. 90). Bostian told investigators that these New York-bound trains were generally assigned the older AEM-7 locomotives. That assignment was switched to a return on no. 188 as part of the shortening of layover times in Washington.

In response to a question, Bostian said, “I think it takes a long time to feel really familiar [with the new locomotive] but I felt comfortable with it.
He recounted his memory of the sequence of events that evening, which included a radio advisory from a SEPTA engineer that the windshield of his train had been “broken and busted out,” and the equipment was stopped in emergency ahead on Track 1 between Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station and North Philadelphia. Bostian was concerned that personnel would be on the ground inspecting the train so he radioed that 188 would be “coming up on [Track] 2 and they didn’t have protection. Also, I think there was an opposite-direction train,” he added.

He also mentioned excessive wind noise escaping around a “black tar-like” substance around his front window.

Bostian explained the visual cues of the (clear) home signal at Shore interlocking and an overpass, as well as the sequence of speed limits leaving North Philadelphia: a 65 mph curve, then an 80 mph straightaway, then the 50 mph curve at Frankford Jct. On the second interview, he remembers incorrectly “targeting” 70 mph as the track speed for the straight stretch on that evening.

“For any type speed increase, I gradually increase the throttle. I don’t slam it all the way open if I’m going slow. But if you’re going kind of fast, it’s OK to slam it open. But I typically accelerate in full throttle and then back off as I approach maximum speed.”

The last thing Bostian remembered before the derailment itself, however, is increasing the speed above 70 mph after he realized that the target on the straightaway should have been 80 mph.

Then at the curve, he recalled making a 10-pound brake pipe reduction. “I realized from the force of my body that this this is something very serious and I need to bring the train speed down quickly.” He then made a full service application, and finally an emergency application in quick succession.

Though not specifically referenced in questioning, Bostian’s testimony does establish a possible link between the ACS-64’s quick acceleration compared to AEM-7s, a fact revealed by another Amtrak engineer during a Trains cab ride aboard one of the new locomotives on June 2, 2014, and the relative inexperience of train no. 188’s engineer with the engine.

Still unexplained is the engineer’s lack of memory at a crucial time.

Investigator: Is anything coming back to you approaching that curve?

Bostian: As far as this incident goes, I really wish I could remember because I really don’t know what happened.

UPDATE: Information from Amtrak engineer's interview with safety investigators. Feb. 1, 2016, 6:12 p.m. Central time.
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