Most notably: whether or not the engineer was using his cell phone.
It’s been about three weeks since Amtrak Train 188 derailed outside Philadelphia, on May 12, and we don’t know much more than we did in the immediate aftermath of the accident. That’s the case despite the fact that the National Transportation Safety Board released a (remarkably scant) preliminary report earlier this week. And despite a three-hour Congressional hearing that took place on Tuesday.
Here’s what we do know: The train left Philadelphia 30th Street Station at 9:10 p.m. bound for New York on May 12. At 9:21 it derailed at Frankford Junction, where a curve requires a maximum speed of 50 miles an hour. Train 188 was going 106 mph when the engineer applied the emergency brake. Most critically, eight people were killed and more than 200 were injured.
And here’s what we don’t know: Anything about what the engineer, who’s been identified as Brandon Bostian, was doing in the moments leading up to the derailment. He recalls nothing after ringing a bell as the train passed North Philadelphia Station. Most critically, while investigators have Bostian’s cell phone records as well as his actual mobile device and password, they still haven’t determined whether or not it was in use at the time of the crash.
It’s this latter fact that lawmakers puzzled over during the Congressional hearing—hammering NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart time and again on the matter. Hart’s standard response was that investigators had hit unexpected snags while trying to establish a precise timeline of calls and texts, largely because the cell phone provider was on California time and the train was on Eastern time. The best Hart could offer was that the phone had been used at some point “that day.”
This limp insight, three weeks after one of the worst Amtrak crashes in recent memory, earned Hart some pretty rough retorts. Via Rep. Jeff Denham:
The engineer has been working with NTSB but still cannot verify that the cell phone that was in use—whether it was texting or using cell phone service during that time. It’s my understanding the engineer has given his password. And yet we can’t still identify whether or not there’s an issue.
Via Rep. Tom Rice:
How many time zones do you cross in Philadelphia on this line?
Via Rep. Patrick Maloney:
Mr. Hart, can you just tell us again, in plain English, why we don’t know whether this operator was on the phone—three weeks after the accident? You said it was a time zone issue? Can’t we just get the records? Do we have the records? And if so, wouldn’t we know whether he’s on the phone?
Via Rep. Barbara Comstock:
I just texted back my daughter, “Yes, I can babysit on Friday.” 11:42. That’s on my phone now. If it was a California phone I guess it might say 8:42 and you could figure it out. Three weeks after, why can’t we take those 11 minutes and have a timeline. I think for the victims and the families, to have that type of information, I just don’t understand what the hold-up is.
Via Rep. Lee Zeldin:
It seems like, if he gives you access to the phone, you look at the phone, and then you know the answer in like 5 minutes.
The answer Hart offered Zeldin pretty much sums up all of his others: “We were surprised by the complexity of it ourself. And we’re experts at this.”
Comstock was the most incredulous. She was disturbed that investigators couldn’t even say whether or not the phone was turned off at the time of the derailment. Her bigger frustration was that, granting the bicoastal complexity, NTSB couldn’t say if any of the calls had occurred during a three-hour window that would cover any time zone. (To take this point further, it would seem investigators could restrict the search to any calls or texts ending between 10 and 21 past the hour.)
Hart’s reply: “We found discrepancies within the carrier’s own time systems where it didn’t even agree with itself. So we’ve got a lot to work out that was far more complicated than anticipated.”
The cell phone status is the key lingering piece of information, but it’s no trivial one. The engineer of a speeding train that derailed and killed 79 people in Spain in 2013 was talking on his phone at the time. And the engineer of a California Metrolink passenger train was texting seconds before colliding with a freight train in 2008, killing 25. (Bostian’s lawyer has reportedly said the phone was stowed in a backpack at the time of the crash.) As a long-term fix, Amtrak will still pursue “positive train control” to avoid accidents caused by human error (the NTSB has said PTC would have saved Train 188). But in the short-term, knowing whether or not the phone played a role could prompt a temporary safety measure, such as banning phones from locomotives entirely.
The Metrolink texting information emerged about three weeks after that accident. Let’s trust that NTSB is dealing with a forensic cell phone analysis problem worthy of Professor Gerald Lambeau, and hold out just a bit longer. Because it would be nice to have even some modestly detailed answers about what happened that day—soon.