In the aftermath of the Amtrak Train 188 derailment, many people understandably had questions about how such a horrific and tragic accident could occur. In the hours and days after the accident, many details were still unclear. In fact, some areas of inquiry remain unsettled as investigators sift through evidence and attempt to piece together a chronology and the exact things went wrong.
To improve public understanding of railroad safety and the things that can go wrong, we first looked at the first 100 years of railroad accidents including the 1943 Frankford Junction derailment that returned to the public awareness in the immediate aftermath of the recent Amtrak crash. In this part, we will examine the final 65 years of railroad accidents in Pennsylvania bring us to the present day. However, as we will soon see the times and equipment may change, but for companies operating a rail line the need for careful and meticulous planning, ample training of workers, and clear and frequent communication are always of the utmost importance.
Train Wrecks in Pennsylvania From the 1950s Through the 1980s
After a difficult period for safety in the 1940s, rail travel safety in Pennsylvania was largely from 1950 through the 1980s. In fact, only a single major accident occurred in each decade. Furthermore, these accidents, generally, inflicted fewer injuries and fatalities than we are used to seeing from the first 100 years of railroad accidents.
The sole accident of the 1950s occurred in October of 1950 in Erie, Pennsylvania. This accident occurred after the New England States Express train struck an oil tanker car that derailed from a passing freight train. Eleven cars on the New England States Express train derailed due to the collision. Also due to the impact, the derailed oil tanker spilled and ignited. Some eyewitness accounts note that fuel from the tanker ran into the sewage pipes and ignited causing the fire to spread. Despite this undoubtedly chaotic scene, only 40 minor injuries were reported.
A 1963 occurred in Dillsberg, Pennsylvania. According to reports from The Evening Sentinel, the accident occurred at 5:45 p.m. after a mechanical failure on one of the cars caused the train to derail. The cascading failure saw sparks from the crash ignite the mass of debris, this fire soon spread to cars loaded with flammable and hazardous materials including chlorine gas.
When firefighters arrived, their positioning upwind from the wreck concealed the fact that some of the cars contained poisonous chlorine gas. For a time, they tried to keep the tanks near the burning debris cool. However, the wind soon shifted blowing the fumes onto the now escaping firefighters. Without firefighters keeping a steady stream of water on the fire, it grew in intensity. At 10:15 a.m. the first explosion sounded. Then, at about 10:45 a.m. a second massive explosion ripped through the area with people from miles away reporting a mushroom cloud. Amazingly, there were no fatalities.
Rounding out the 1970s and 1980s, a runaway train slammed through the Lehigh Valley Engine House in March 1973. While the building sustained significant damage, there were no fatalities. In a 1988 Thompsontown head-on train collision attributed to crew fatigue, both trains’ engineers and brakemen lost their lives. These are the only railroad fatalities in Pennsylvania during a period of approximately 40 years.
Pennsylvania Train Accidents From the 1990s to Today
Unfortunately, the safety record for railroads in Pennsylvania began to slip in the 1990s and 2000s. These decades are marked by an increase in the frequency of train accidents and derailments. The first derailment in this ear occurred in March 1990, when a mechanical failure caused a SEPTA Market-Frankford line train to fall from the elevated rails. The accident killed three and injured approximately 150 making it the most deadly rail accident in Pennsylvania since the 1940s.
In 1995, the loss of institutional knowledge and craft skills among railroad workers was blamed for a boiler explosion on a Gettysburg Railroad locomotive. While this locomotive was not particularly unique, it was an old-fashioned steam locomotive. Apparently since the switch to mostly electric and diesel trains, the skills and knowledge to handle the older mode of propulsion was not maintained. However, in a lucky twist of fate, this engine was equipped with fusible plugs, which were common in Europe but rare at the time in North America. It is believed that this safety feature prevented a much more severe accident. This incident spurred the overhaul of steam locomotive safety regulations.
As we entered the 2000s, railroad accidents, counterintuitively and unfortunately, became more common. In May 2002, a freight train was unable to stop for a vehicle at a crossing that was not clearly marked. Two teenagers were killed and two others suffered injuries. In a July 2006 train collision in Abington, two trains travelling on the same tracks collided injuring nearly 40. An October derailment in the same year resulted in ethanol being spilled into the Beaver River in New Brighton. The resulting fire burned for days and required evacuations.
The final accident we will look at is the accident immediately preceding the Train 188 disaster, the January 2014 derailment of a CSX train in Philadelphia. The 101-car train was carrying crude oil. When the train passed over a bridge to carry it over the Schuylkill Expressway, seven cars derailed. Emergency crews were forced to drain the oil from the tankers closing the expressway below. No injuries were reported.
Unfortunately, the ill-fated Amtrak Regional Northeast Corridor train, as we all know, would not avoid inflicting a human toll. While the exact cause of the derailment is still unknown, we do know that more than 200 people were injured and 8 passenger deaths occurred.
A Recap of Railroad Accidents in Pennsylvania
The pattern in railroad accidents is a bit of a peculiar one. It is expected that safety in the early days of railroads would be rather suspect and improve slowly, but one would not expect to see such backsliding in the number of train accidents and injuries in the state occur as we approach the present day. However, there is hope for improved railroad safety on the horizon. Positive train control is likely to be able to prevent or significantly reduce the likelihood of derailments and collisions. In the aftermath of the accidents, Amtrak revealed that it expects to have a system up and running on the entirety of the Northeast Corridor within several months.