Death at Double Speed: The 2015 Philadelphia (USA) Train Derailment

Philadelphia is a city of 1.6 million people (as of 2020) in the northeastern USA, located in the state of Pennsylvania 154km/96mi east of Harrisburg and 126km/78mi southwest of New York City (both measurements in linear distance).

The location of Philadelphia in the northeastern United States of America.

Philadelphia lies on the so-called Northeast Corridor, a double- to six-tracked electrified main line connecting Boston in the north with Washington D.C. in the south on 735km/457mi of track. The line opened between 1834 and 1917 and nowadays sees an annual ridership of 12.53 million people (as of 2019) spread out over 108 stations. The line is mostly used for passenger services, seeing everything from regional commuter trains to long distance express services. Most trains on the line run no faster than 201kph/125mph, with the “Acela Express” trains providing the USA’s only high speed rail service at up to 240kph/150mph on some sections of the Northeast Corridor.

The site of the accident seen from above, the train came from the left (west).

The “Northeast Regional” number 188 was a regional passenger service from Washington D.C. to New York City, provided by Washington D.C.-based passenger train provider Amtrak. The connection is Amtrak’s busiest route and has been running in the current form since 2008, transporting 8.69 million people per year (as of 2018). On the day of the accident the train was pulled by a Siemens ACS-64 (marketed as the Amtrak Cities Sprinter) number 601. The ACS-64 is a four-axle multisystem electric locomotive specifically developed for passenger services on the Northeast Corridor and Keystone Corridor in the northeastern USA. The locomotive is based off the popular Siemens “Vectron” multipurpose electric locomotive, with adaptations for the US-market mostly regarding a different cab-design (with reinforcements for higher crash-protection and changes to the lights and whistles as well as adapting the electrical system. The locomotives measure 20.32m/66.7ft in length at a weight of 97 metric tons (slightly more than the Vectron they’re based on, mostly due to added structural strengthening). They can reach up to 217kph/135mph but are limited to 201kph/125mph in regular service. Depending on the electricity provided by the overhead wires the locomotives develop up to 6400kW/8600hp in peak-mode with long-term power sitting at 5000kW/6700hp. They were designed to accelerate a train of 18 “Amfleet” passenger cars (see below) to 201kph/125mph in eight minutes. Locomotive number 601, which pulled the train involved in the accident, was the second of 70 locomotives from Amtrak’s first order and cost 6.6 million USD/5.6 million Euros.

Amtrak Cities Sprinter #601, the locomotive involved in the accident, photographed during pre-delivery testing in Jun 2013.

On the day of the accident the train consisted of seven four-axle “Amfleet” passenger cars. Introduced in 1975 “Amfleet” passenger cars are the backbone of Amtrak’s passenger services, with over 600 cars made so far. The cars, which feature a distinctive look thanks to their stainless steel bodies, measure 26m/85ft in length at around 49 metric tons in weight (48–51 metric tons depending on configuration) and can carry up to 84 passengers at as much as 201kph/125mph. However, most cars are equipped with more spacious seating, limiting capacity to 72 people per car in second class or 62 in first class. The cars have notably small windows, which was done not only to reduce vandalism but also to give the trains and “airliner feeling”, which also explains the interior being styled after jet aircraft at the time.

Amtrak Cities Sprinter #601, the locomotive involved in the accident, pulling a train near-identical with the one involved in the accident, photographed 9 months before the accident.

On the 12th of May 2015 at approximately 9:10pm Amtrak Northeast Regional #188 departs Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station (the city’s main train station) on its northbound journey to New York City. Controlling the barely a year old locomotive was Mr. Bostian, who had gotten certified for the route just a few weeks prior. Being designed for much heavier trains the locomotive has little trouble getting the seven cars up to speed as it approaches Frankfurt Junction, the railway equivalent of a large intersection in northeast Philadelphia, from the west. The Northeast Regional will use a quad-track left hand turn to head north and is meant to approach at no more than 130kph/80mph while the speed limit within the turn is set at 80kph/50mph. The train is carrying 238 passengers and 5 crew members, far from maximum capacity. At 9:22pm the train reaches the left hand turn at 171kph/106mph. Realizing the fatal mistake he made Mr. Bostian triggers an emergency stop, a desperate but futile attempt to save his train. Seconds later, at 9:23pm, the locomotive derails partway through the turn. The data-logger later shows that it leaves its track at 164kph/102mph, twice the speed limit. The locomotive begins to pull its train off the tracks before tearing off at the coupler, the centrifugal forces cause several of the forward cars to roll over as six of the seven cars leave the tracks (car seven derails and leans but remains largely aligned with the track). While the locomotive narrowly misses a catenary support pole and comes to a stop several meters from the main wreckage with severe damage but upright the first passenger car strikes a support pole head-on, suffering severe damage as the pole is torn from the wires and its base and gets flattened under the car. The ensuing roll-over leads to a catastrophic loss of survival space in the leading car. Cars 2–4 remain somewhat aligned, overtaking the remains of the leading car and ending up spanning a large turn between the point of derailment and the tracks the train was meant to merge into. Cars 5–7 remain upright, it can be said that the damage gets worse the further one moves forward in the train. In a stroke of luck amidst the disaster the derailing train misses both the supports of a pedestrian overpass and several parked freight cars, striking either could have significantly worsened the outcome of the derailment. As it is 8 people die in the derailment with 177 people surviving with injuries, 46 of which being listed as severely injured.

A photo of the wreckage during recovery, labeling the forward cars and intended route.

The cars fell dark as the train separated from the locomotive, leaving survivors disoriented in a dusty, crammed environment. One of the survivors described it as “Absolute mayhem, A lot of blood, a lot of bleeding (…) people were crying and screaming”. A nearby resident was quoted as saying it sounded “like an earthquake”, another allegedly thought a bomb had gone off nearby. Four victims were ejected from the leading cars as they rolled over, dying as the heavy cars came down on top of them. At 9:25pm a passenger places the first call with emergency services, a fire department unit is first to reach the site 9:31pm. Finding survivors wandering the tracks in darkness Amtrak was ordered to shut down the affected section of the northeast corridor, by 9:35am the level of alarm was raised to a mass casualty event. A nearby school was used to evaluate and distribute survivors, trying to avoid overloading selected emergency rooms or surgery capacities. Survivors were transported to ten different hospitals in the area, the first patient arriving at a hospital after on-site care at 9:57pm. By the early morning hours cranes were brought in to lift up the turned-over forward cars, allowing responders to recover the victims trapped underneath them.

NTSB investigators arriving at the site the morning after the accident.

Investigators noted that the second and third car, while remaining largely structurally intact, had lost all (car 3) or most (car 2) of their windows, allowing passengers to be ejected entirely or partially. While the FBI’s investigators finish their work at the site without finding any sign of sabotage, terrorism or a similar deliberate attack the NTSB’s crew soon focuses on the train’s speed, recovering the data-logger as well as the locomotive’s dashcam. Reconstructing the final moments of the train they find that it was travelling at 160kph/100mph just sixteen seconds before entering the turn, with the driver triggering an emergency stop mere moments before derailing which was likely when he realized the severity of his situation. Mr. Bostian’s lawyer said that his client didn’t remember the accident itself, blanking out before the train reached the station. The NTSB still noted that Bostian was “extremely cooperative”, and that a memory-loss was not unusual after both a traumatic event and a concussion like the one suffered by Mr. Bostian during the derailment. Investigators manage to prove that he was not under the influence of any drugs at the time of the accident, nor was he distracted by his cellphone. The near-new locomotive was in perfect working order also, ruling out an unintended acceleration while the survivors’ statements about feeling a strong deceleration moments before the derailment deletes brake failure from the list of possible causes.

Investigators examining the remains of car 1, where most victims were found.

Looking through radio traffic around the time of the accident investigators start piecing together the cause of the excessive speed. A few minutes before the accident a different train on the same section of track had had its cab-window struck by a thrown rock, shattering the glass and injuring the driver. While it can never be proven that the derailed train was attacked in such a way too (with somewhat-similar damage found but investigators unable to prove its origin) the investigators conclude that the radio-chatter following the attack on the nearby train distracted the inexperienced driver, causing a fatal loss of situational awareness. In simplified terms, Mr. Bostian thought he was further down the track, past the curve, than he was and accelerated the train to the speed limit valid once past the curve. The area where the accident occurred does not post speed limits, train drivers are expected to remember them from time/mileage, signals and surrounding objects (like bridges and buildings).

A graphic published by the Washington Post, showing the speed limits compared to the derailed train’s recorded speeds.

After the accident Amtrak was criticized for still not having PTC (Positive Train Control) up and running on the line, system which can monitor and limit the speed of a train (overriding the driver’s inputs) or even stop a train to avoid accidents. Amtrak argued that PTC hardware had been installed on the tracks before the accident, complying with a congress-mandated deadline of December 2015, but that they had been unable to actually use the system due to a lack of budget and the Federal Communications Commission refusing to let them purchase the rights to the needed radio frequencies. As it was the installation of the system was completed and operational on the southbound tracks of the turn but not the affected northbound tracks. This feet-dragging was sharply criticized by the head of the NTSB investigation, who said that PTC had been around for 45 years and could’ve avoided 25 severe rail accidents in the USA in the previous 20 years.

A day after the accident the US House of Representatives cut Amtrak’s funding by 260 Million USD/223 million Euros, When this was criticized by some of the democrats in the House they were admonished by Idaho Representative at the time Mike Simpson as trying to disrespectfully use the tragedy for their goals.

Car 3 as shown in the report, with a destroyed entrance-area and all the windows missing.

By December 2015 Amtrak finished the installation of and started using PTC on the entire northeast corridor from Washington D.C. to Boston and also started the installation of inwards-facing cameras in all their locomotives, surveilling the drivers to be able to reconstruct what happened if a driver suffers memory loss, dies or refuses to cooperate after an accident. Mr. Bostian was charged with eight counts of involuntary manslaughter along with other charges including negligent cause of a catastrophic event and reckless endangerment in May 2017. If convicted, he could have faced a jail sentence exceeding 500 years. However, two trials against Bostian ended with the charges against him being dismissed, most recently in July 2019. In the recent trial it was explained that the courts have to recognize a difference between random human error and criminal negligence, and Bostian’s case was the former. As such, no legal sentences were ever handed down against anyone involved in the accident. Independently from the criminal trials several survivors and victims’ relatives went after Amtrak for damage pay, challenging the so-called “Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act of 1997” which capped financial responsibility at 200 million USD/172 million Euros claiming that it was wildly insufficient. In July 2015 Amtrak announced that they accepted blame for the damages suffered, saying in a release that Amtrak will “not contest liability for compensatory damages caused by the derailment of Train 188 on May 12, 2015”. By October 2016 Amtrak had reached a settlement with various plaintiffs coming in at a total 265 Million USD/228 million Euros. The amount is split up among over 125 cases, with part of it being withheld pending further lawsuits or settlements.

Police officers standing between cars 4 and 5 a few hours after the accident.

The Philadelphia derailment was Amtrak’s first accident with the ACS-64, followed by a second one almost a year later when locomotive #627 struck construction equipment and killed two workers. By June 2016 Siemens handed over the 70th locomotive, allowing Amtrak to largely replace the aging AEM-7 and unreliable HHP-8 locomotives.

Amtrak is in the process of seeking a successor to the Amfleet passenger cars, despite announcing a refurbishment for the cars in 2017 they announced looking into replacement options by 2018. In February 2021 Amtrak announced that Siemens will deliver 83 train sets with different propulsion-methods (diesel, electric or both), rather than again going with individual cars. The contract has an estimated value of 7.3 billion USD/6.3 billion Euros. The new trains are scheduled to begin service between 2025 and 2035. While most Amfleet cars will eventually be headed to the scrapyard some will be sold off, with excursion operator Railexco being the first private company purchasing three Amfleet cars in May 2020.

The accident remains the deadliest accident on the Northeast Corridor since 1987, when the Chase Train Collision killed 16 people near Baltimore.

An early design-sketch for the new “ICM” trains starting service in 2025.

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