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Experts Say Amtrak Accident Should Have Been Prevented

By: Allan M. Siegel

“This is an absolutely shouldn’t-have-happened situation… the safety procedures are in place to prevent exactly this,” said Allan Zarembski, director of the University of Delaware’s Railroad Engineering and Safety Program. Zarembski is referring to the deadly Amtrak crash that occurred last week just south of Philadelphia that killed two workers and injured dozens of passengers. A backhoe supervisor and operator had been on an area of train track they thought had been closed off by dispatchers when an Amtrak train going over 106 miles per hour collided with their equipment. It is unlikely that the two men would have heard the train coming over the noise of the backhoe, and the train operator did not have enough braking distance to avoid the collision.

The accident occurred at almost the same location as a similar accident that happened 28 years ago, and is proof that even the best electronic systems cannot prevent human error. Evidently, the problem with technology is that it can provide a false sense of security when we begin to rely on it solely.

A directive from the Federal Railroad Administration to Amtrak suggests that a communication error resulted in the safety protocol failure that led to the accident. So far, investigators have not yet specified who was authorized to be on the rails at the time of the crash, nor whether positive train control, a system designed to automatically stop trains to prevent a collision, was engaged. The positive train control system was implemented only a few months ago in response to another fatal train accident that occurred north of Philadelphia last spring.

Workers are required to gain authority from a dispatcher before going out onto the tracks. According to area residents whose homes border the tracks, Amtrak employees had been out on the tracks for weeks before the day of the accident. Since orders to repair rails start with railroad higher-ups, someone must have known that the workers were out the day of the crash.

This unfortunate accident is one of many fatal accidents that Amtrak has seen in recent years. According to NTSB data, two employees died on the job last year, and 11 on-duty employee fatalities occurred in 2015. The Federal Railroad Administration has responded by implementing stringent policies for on-track work, but it is clear that further action is needed to ensure proficiency and enforcement. But according to Zarembski, no piece of technology will ever completely eliminate the risk that something will go wrong when someone steps on a track.

If you have been hurt in a train accident or have suffered the untimely loss of a family member, contact Chaikin, Sherman, Cammarata, Siegel, P.C. to speak with a Washington, DC train accident attorney.