NTSB: driver of derailed Amtrak train not on cellphone at time of crash

Congress has been pressuring the NTSB to find out what caused the Amtrak derailment last month in Philadelphia. At a Senate hearing Wednesday, participants stressed a need to install technology designed to prevent unsafe train movements.

Yuri Gripas/Reuters
T. Bella Dinh-Zarr (l.), vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, and D.J. Stadtler (second left), executive vice president-chief operations officer of Amtrak, attend the Senate Commerce, Science, & Transportation Committee hearing on 'Passenger Rail Safety: Accident Prevention and On-Going Efforts to Implement Train Control Technology' on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., June 10.

The engineer operating an Amtrak train that derailed in Philadelphia last month wasn't using his cellphone moments before the crash, federal investigators said Wednesday morning. 

Analysis of the engineer's phone indicates that no calls, texts, or data usage occurred while the engineer was operating the train, the National Transportation Safety Board said in a statement.

Amtrak records also confirm that the engineer, Brandon Bostian, didn't access the Wi-Fi system on the train during that time, the NTSB said.

The NTSB is still analyzing the phone – which contains more than 400,000 files of metadata – at its laboratory in Washington, D.C. While investigators have confirmed the phone wasn't used as a phone, they haven't ruled out that the engineer could have been using other applications on the phone in the moments before the crash.

The agency said that Mr. Bostian provided investigators with the phone's passcode and that they are also obtaining an identical phone to help validate the tests they are running.

The NTSB investigation so far has revealed the train was traveling at 106 miles per hour in the minute before entering a curve where the speed limit is 50 m.p.h. The brakes were applied with maximum force in the last few seconds, but the train was still traveling in excess of 100 m.p.h. when it derailed, according to the NTSB. Eight people died in the crash and about 200 others were injured. 

Bostian suffered a head injury in the crash, and his attorney says the engineer doesn't remember anything after the train left the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, the last stop before the crash. Bostian's lawyer also says the phone was switched off and kept in a bag until after the crash, when the engineer used it to dial 911, the Associated Press reported.

A few days after the crash, NTSB investigators dismissed as "pure speculation" a media report that "human error" had caused the crash.

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) lists human factors as one of five "types" of causes of train accidents, which also include mechanical and electrical failures, and track and roadbed conditions. Examples of human factors are the improper use of brakes, improper radio communication, and the physical condition of the employee.

Congress has been pressuring the NTSB to find out what caused the derailment, and at a Senate transportation committee hearing on Wednesday morning, participants stressed a need to install positive train controls (PTC) on railroad systems across the country – technology that is designed to prevent unsafe train movements and prevent "overspeeding," among other characteristics.

T. Bella Dinh-Zarr, vice chairman of the NTSB, told the committee that PTC is designed as a safeguard against human factors like distraction and fatigue.

"As we all know, the May 12 accident in Philadelphia would have been prevented by PTC," Dr. Dinh-Zarr said at the hearing.

But the costs of installing and maintaining PTC systems are steep, the installation process is complex, and the transportation sector is at the center of a bitter funding dispute in Congress.

The Republican-controlled House passed a bill Tuesday that would cut Amtrak's budget by $242 million – part of a $55 billion, GOP-backed transportation and housing bill.

The House Appropriations Committee approved the bill last month, less than a day after the Amtrak crash in Philadelphia. The committee also voted down a Democratic amendment that would have allocated $825 million to positive train control. President Obama has threatened to veto the bill.

The FRA has been tasked with enforcing a Dec. 31 deadline for railroads across the country to implement a PTC system. Only 29 percent of commuter railroads are expected to meet that deadline, Robert Lauby, the FRA's chief safety officer, said at the hearing. He added that installing PTC systems on commuter railroads nationwide would cost about $3.5 billion, and maintenance costs would be $83 million a year.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D) of Florida, the committee's ranking member, criticized Congress for pursuing the funding cuts.

"Instead of talking about increases, we’re facing cuts," he said. "I think we’re going to have to reverse that course."

Dinh-Zarr said that legislators need to move beyond the upfront costs of PTC implementation and "focus on the long-term transformational benefits."

"We have the latest technology, and even if it is difficult [to implement], we should use it to save lives," she said. "For every day that passes without PTC, we run the risk of another deadly, preventable, PTC-preventable accident."

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