Investigators have called on the FBI following speculation that an Amtrak train, which derailed last week in Northern Philadelphia, was struck with a projectile.
Train 188 was operating between Washington, D.C. and New York, N.Y. when it derailed on a curve just after going through Philadelphia.
8 passengers were killed, and more than 200 are reportedly injured – at least 11 critically.
National Transport Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt shed more light on the situation towards the end of last week, conducting two more press conferences on-site, following his initial press conference on Wednesday (local time) last week.
Sumwalt has confirmed media speculation that the train was exceeding 100 miles per hour just before it entered the curve where it derailed.
In his second conference last week, he was able to be more specific, saying that video evidence from the train’s locomotive car showed more precisely the speed in the lead-up to the incident.
Sumwalt said just over a minute before the derailment, the train speed went above 70 miles per hour (113 km/h).
22 seconds later, it had accelerated to 80 miles per hour (129 km/h). 12 seconds after that – around half a minute prior to the derailment – it had reached 90 miles per hour (145 km/h).
16 seconds before the end of the recording, Sumwalt detailed, the train went through the 100 miles per hour (161km/h) mark. The curve ahead of the train, where it eventually derailed, has an authorised speed of 50 miles per hour.
“Just before entering the curve is when the engineer applied the engineer-induced [emergency] braking,” Sumwalt described.
“And I would describe it as mere seconds into the turn, we can see the train tilting approximately 10 degrees to the right, and then the recording went blank.”
Sumwalt denied media rumours that the engineer was not talking with the NTSB, and said the engineer was “extremely cooperative” with investigators, but was accompanied by his lawyer, which is “not unusual”.
“He recalls ringing the train bell as he went through the North Philadelphia station,” Sumwalt said. “But he has no recollection of anything past that.”
Amtrak’s North Philadelphia station is around 4.5km from the derailment site.
“He said that he did not feel fatigued, nor did he report any illness,” Sumwalt explained.
The engineer reported no problems with his train handling, “and when asked he demonstrated a very good working knowledge of the territory,” Sumwalt said. “Speed limitations, things like that.”
The 32-year-old engineer began his railroad career while in college, as a brake man, then started with Amtrak in 2006 and has been a locomotive engineer since 2010.
While investigators are treating the incident as an accident, they have called in the Federal Bureau of Investigation, to look at what is believed to be an impact point on the train’s windshield, from a projectile prior to the derailment.
The train’s 39-year-old assistant conductor (one of two assistant conductors on board), who started with Amtrak in 2011, was in the fourth car – the Café car – when the incident occurred.
“She stated that before departing Washington the entire crew conducted a safety briefing, where they went over all of the speed restrictions along their intended route,” Sumwalt outlined.
“She reported it was a normal run through Philadelphia
“She reported that approximately 3-4 minutes after departing Philadelphia, she said she heard the [Amtrak] engineer talking to a SEPTA engineer.”
SEPTA is the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority – the local regional train operator.
“She recalled that the SEPTA engineer reported to the train dispatcher that he had either been hit by a rock, or shot at,” Sumwalt said.
“The SEPTA engineer said that he had a broken windshield and he placed his train into emergency stop.
“She also believed that she heard her engineer saying his train was struck by something.”
The train derailed shortly after the assistant conductor reportedly heard this message.
“Our investigation has not independently confirmed this information,” Sumwalt explained, “but we have seen damage to the left-hand lower portion of the Amtrak windshield, which we have asked the FBI to come in and look at for us.”
The train’s 35-year-old, second assistant conductor, hired by Amtrak in May 2014, was in the last passenger car with about 40 passengers on board. He reported some radio issues during the journey, but nothing else untoward prior to the incident.
Both assistant conductors said they had a happy working relationship with the train’s engineer.
The train’s conductor, the fourth and final member of the on-board crew, had not been interviewed by the NTSB as at the end of last week, due to hospitalisation.
Over this past weekend the NTSB began the process of reconstructing the train at its facility.
No anomalies were recorded in any of Train 188’s pre-inspection records taken prior to its journey. Track geometry inspection, performed the day before the accident, found no anomalies either.
In 1943, a train derailed on the same curved section of track as Train 188, killing 79 and injuring 117. That incident was reportedly caused by overheating, which led to a broken axle.