How and Why Trains Derail in Pennsylvania

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In the aftermath of the horrific Philadelphia Amtrak crash which occurred on May 12, 2015, the same question is on everyone’s mind: why did this disaster occur?  The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) continues to search for the answer.  In order to better prevent these terrible tragedies from claiming more victims in the future, we must strive to understand the underlying causes behind train derailments.  These causes typically involve one or more of the following elements: mechanical failure, human error, and malfunctions with the control systems guiding the trains.  The NTSB is still in the process of identifying which of these factors allowed Train 188 to speed out of control through the dangerous curve of Frankford Junction in Port Richmond.

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Facts and Statistics: How Often Do Train Crashes Happen?

Train derailments like the Philadelphia Amtrak disaster are rare compared to car accidents and even plane crashes.  Unfortunately, on those rare occasions where they do occur, train crashes often result in high numbers of injuries and fatalities because of the massive speeds and physical forces involved.  Broken bones caused by train crashes are common, as are train-related spinal injuries and brain injuries caused by derailments.

Depending on their design, some Amtrak trains, such as the Superliner II, can weigh as much as 148,000 pounds.  To put the enormity of that number into perspective, consider that the average elephant weighs about 12,000 pounds, while a Toyota Camry weighs “only” about 3,500 pounds.

The train involved in the recent disaster, Amtrak Northeast Regional Train 188, was categorized as a Type B, non-Acela train, the “Amtrak Cities Sprinter”: a new design capable of attaining speeds up to 125 MPH.  These trains can accelerate to 125 MPH in as little as eight minutes when traveling along the Northeast Corridor, which stretches from Boston in the north to Washington D.C. in the south, hitting major cities like New York and Philadelphia along the way.

Data compiled by the Federal Railroad System Office of Safety indicates that a history of railroad accidents (and other abnormal incidents) show that accidents may be on a gradual rise.  2,203 accidents and incidents occurred in 2014, compared to 1,776 in 2012.  The majority of these accidents did not result in any deaths, with 1,295 of the 2012 accidents and 1,586 of the 2014 accidents being classified as non-fatal.  All the same, sadly fatal accidents can and do occur.  Consider the following statistics:

  • 2012:
    • Derailments — 220
    • Collisions — 14
    • Fatalities — 104

The following year, the number of collisions nearly doubled:

  • 2013:
    • Derailments — 191
    • Collisions — 30
    • Fatalities — 99

Collisions then decreased, while derailments and fatalities rose:

  • 2014:
    • Derailments — 226
    • Collisions — 22
    • Fatalities — 106

This data shows a slight dip in derailments and fatalities from 2012 to 2013.  However, the numbers again climbed in 2014, with six more derailments and two more fatalities occurring in 2014 than in 2012.

The Office of Safety also analyzed the specific causes of train accidents and incidents, dividing them into the following categories:

  • Equipment Causes:
    • 2012 — 39
    • 2013 — 33
    • 2014 — 47
  • Human Factors (Human Error):
    • 2012 — 98
    • 2013 — 96
    • 2014 — 132

Notice the dramatic increase in incidents attributed to human error in 2014 from the previous two years, which were almost completely stable.

  • Signal Causes:
    • 2012 — 12
    • 2013 — 9
    • 2014 — 8

Signal causes were rarer than any other causes, and have decreased steadily over the past few years.

  • Track Causes:
    • 2012 — 112
    • 2013 — 91
    • 2014 — 87

Based on these figures, there does not appear to be a consistent pattern between the various causes documented by the Office of Safety.  While track and signal causes saw a linear decline, equipment causes dipped mildly in 2013 before rising again in 2014.  At the same time, there was a notable increase after a plateau in human error incidents and accidents.

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Different Types of Railroad Accidents

Not all train accidents are classified as derailments.  Other types of railroad accidents include head-on collisions, on-board fires, railroad crossing accidents, and “runaway train” accidents in which brake failure permits the train to attain unsafe speeds.  Derailments occur specifically when a train leaves its rails.

In a minor derailment, the train may not actually leave its track.  In a major derailment, the train can separate completely from the track along which it is supposed to travel. This is what occurred in the Train 188 disaster as described by Philadelphia Fire Department Deputy Commissioner Jesse Wilson, who stated, “You can see that they’re completely, completely derailed from the track.  They’ve been destroyed completely.  The aluminum shell has been destroyed and they’ve been overturned completely.”

Data inside the black box taken from the Pennsylvania Amtrak Train 188 accident site indicated that Train 188 was traveling at speeds of approximately 106 MPH when the derailment occurred, despite the 50 MPH speed limit imposed for Frankford Junction.

But why do these failures occur?  While the National Transportation Safety Board continues to analyze the scene, major railroad accidents of the past may provide some technical insight into the risk factors associated with rail travel.

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Mechanical Failure: The Eschede ICE Derailment

The Intercity-Express (ICE) enjoyed massive success following its German debut with the ICE 1 in 1989.  The ICE employed an experimental design which allowed trains to reach world record speeds of up to 253 MPH — more than twice the speed at which Train 188 was traveling at the time of the Philadelphia Amtrak crash on the night of May 12.  With the fall of the Berlin Wall in November of 1989, the ICE was intended to help usher in a new era of social and political stability, a symbol of peace and prosperity for a modern, prosperous, unified Germany.

The ICE was celebrated for its speed and efficiency, carrying tens of millions of passengers each year.  There was just one problem: the ICE trains had a tendency to create noisy, disruptive vibrations, which was particularly noticeable on dining cars as glasses and silverware rattled and slid across tables.

To combat the problem and give passengers a smoother ride, company officials decided to replace the ICE’s original Monobloc wheels — single-cast wheels which were resilient, solid pieces ideal for traveling at high speeds — with dual block wheels.

The new dual block wheels effectively solved the vibration issue, but at the expense of creating a much more serious problem.  Unlike Monobloc wheels, dual block wheels consist of three separate structural components: an exterior metal tire, wrapped around a smaller interior wheel, with a thin strip of rubber placed between the two layers.  The dual block wheels were not tested for high-speed performance prior to the replacement, to the tragic detriment of the passengers and crew aboard ICE 884.

On the morning of June 3, 1998, ICE 884 was traveling en route from Munich to Hamburg, a journey the train had made without incident many times before.  But on this particular day, at approximately 11:00 A.M., disaster struck: the outer tire of a dual block wheel separated from the rubber lining and inner tire, unraveling from the wheel body like a strip of film being unwound from a circular spool. The unraveling strip of metal then rotated upward, piercing directly through the floor of the train.  At approximately the same time, the train also passed over a track switch, which caused the track setting to change beneath the already badly-damaged train.

ICE 884 Cars 3 and 4 derailed in rapid succession while traveling at a speed of 125 MPH.  Car 3 smashed into a nearby overpass, while Car 4 went through the overpass and overturned on an embankment, instantly killing two railroad workers near the bridge.  Cars ahead of Car 3 slowly came to a stop near Eschede Station, for which the Eschede Train Disaster became known.

88 passengers sustained serious train crash injuries, while another 101 people were train disaster wrongful death victims, and yet another 106 people suffered minor injuries or were unharmed.  The cause of the crash was later identified as a hairline crack in the affected dual block wheel, caused by the constant flexing and bending of the wheel as it rotated at high speeds over the track.  The crack finally ruptured on June 3, causing the disaster to occur.

Several company officials and one engineer were subsequently charged with manslaughter.  The defendants ultimately accepted a plea bargain, paid a $12,000 fine, and the case was dismissed with prejudice with no verdict.  Monobloc wheels were later reinstated.

Eerily, another fatal train accident occurred at Eschede almost exactly 100 years earlier, killing three on August 4, 1897.

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Human Error: The Gare de Lyon Rail Accident

Failure to test the ICE’s new dual block wheels was a fundamental human error which contributed heavily to the deaths of 101 human beings.  However, the direct cause of the Eschede crash was a mechanical malfunction. Unlike Eschede, the earlier Gare de Lyon Rail Accident in France was purely a product of human error.

Shortly before 7:00 P.M. on the evening of June 27, 1988 — approximately a decade before the Eschede Disaster — an SNCF (National Society of French Railways) commuter train was traveling southeast on a 50-mile journey from Melun to Gare de Lyon, a major train station in Paris which processes close to 100,000,000 passengers each year.

While en route to Gare de Lyon, the train — designated Train 153944 — sped past the platform for  Le Vert de Maisons, where it normally would have stopped if not for a new schedule which had been recently implemented by the SNCF.  Alarmed to have missed her regular stop, an unidentified passenger quickly pulled the emergency brake and departed the train near Le Vert de Maisons.

After the passenger exited, the task of resetting the brakes fell to two crew personnel: a guard, Jean Charles Bovee, and the driver, Daniel Saulin.  This should have been a simple task, but Bovee and Saulin struggled to reset the brakes for nearly half an hour.  They finally succeeded after applying considerable physical force to the brake system — but the delay had put them dramatically behind schedule.

Anxious to make up the time lost while resetting the brakes, a controller at Gare de Lyon told Bovee and Saulin to skip the next step and proceed directly to the terminal in Paris.  Only then, as Saulin passed by a caution light on his final approach toward Gare de Lyon, did an extremely serious problem became apparent: the train was not responding to Saulin’s input to the braking system.  The situation was made even more dangerous by the track’s location on a downhill slope, causing the already speeding train to accelerate even faster.

Saulin then issued a frantic emergency call, but in his panic, failed to identify himself.  The receiver had no way of knowing who Saulin was, which train was experiencing problems, or which track the emergency was occurring on. Not knowing what else to do, Saulin rushed the passengers toward the final car of the train, hoping to concentrate them as far away from the impact point as possible.

Meanwhile, at Gare de Lyon, another train was sitting on the same set of tracks as it waited to depart.  This train’s operator, André Tanguy, did not receive a warning to evacuate his passengers until contact with the runaway train was imminent.  Realizing the gravity of the situation, Tanguy heroically remained in his train, warning his passengers to evacuate until the moment Train 153944 finally struck.

Tanguy was killed instantly, one of 56 fatalities caused by the collision. Another 55 people were seriously injured. Saulin and Bovee were found guilty of manslaughter, and were each sentenced to four years in prison. Saulin was released after serving six months of his sentence.

The ensuing investigation determined that the disaster was rooted in Saulin and Bovee’s gross mishandling of the brake system reset, which slashed the train’s braking power to just one-eighth of its normal capacity.  The subsequent string of human errors — notably Saulin’s failure to use the backup electric brake and additional failure to identify himself to controllers — ensured an unavoidable collision.

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Computer Malfunction: Amtrak Derailment Site Missing PTC System

While the Gare de Lyon accident did not involve derailment, it does share a crucial element with the recent Amtrak disaster: both trains were traveling at dangerously high speeds for which they were not approved.  Did Train 188, like Train 153944, also experience a brake system malfunction?  If so, was the malfunction attributable to a purely mechanical defect, as in the case of Eschede?  Or to human error, as in the case of Gare de Lyon?  NTSB investigators continue to search for the answer.

However, one critical detail has emerged which could shed additional light on the Amtrak Train 188 derailment: the conspicuous absence of a crucial safety system known as PTC, or Positive Train Control.  The technologically advanced PTC system is designed to “prevent train-to-train collisions, derailments caused by excessive speed and certain human-caused incidents such as misaligned track switches,” and has been lauded by Amtrak as “the most important rail safety system of our time” – yet it was missing from the portion of track on which the Philadelphia Amtrak derailment occurred.

If you’re a Train 188 derailment injury victim, or if one of your loved ones was an Amtrak crash wrongful death victim, the catastrophic injury lawyers of The Reiff Law Firm urge you to contact us for free legal help.  Call our law offices any time of day or evening at (215) 246-9000 to talk about how we can assist you.  Your consultation is completely free of charge, and we will never share your personal information.

If you’re looking for information about the Amtrak crash or missing persons, call Amtrak’s emergency hotline at (800) 523-9101.  We are keeping the victims and their loved ones in our thoughts and prayers as the NTSB continues its search for the causes of this terrible tragedy.

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