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The Amtrak 188 Go Team: How two federal agencies, the NTSB and FRA, will investigate the crash

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A “Go Team” from the National Transportation Safety Board (the NTSB) has arrived at the scene of the Amtrak 188 train crash. A team from the Federal Railroad Administration (the FRA) has been dispatched. Whereas the local fire department has been coordinating a rescue plan, the NTSB and the FRA investigate the crash. The team will sift through wreckage and try to determine what factors caused the accident, and offer recommendations about preventing similar incidents. Here’s how that process works.

What exactly does the NTSB Go Team do?

Go Team is a pretty apt description for the group that will be investigating the crash. According to the NTSB, a go-team consists of anywhere from three to more than a dozen people, depending on the severity of the accident. They’re like Minutemen, who can be called upon at any time to travel from their home base in Washington D.C. And mostly, they’re deployed for airplane crashes, though they also handle major train incidents as well. When they reach an accident site, they study everything: The weather, the train equipment, activities of the staff during the accident and their behavior in the hours and days leading up to the accident and much more.

When will we hear an update from the NTSB?

The NTSB should update the media today. Part of their protocol includes briefing the media at least once a day during a hands-on investigation. The NTSB will only provide information it can factually confirm and does not speculate about cause.

How long until the investigation is completed by the NTSB?  

No timetable has been reported yet. If you look back at past railroad accidents investigated by the the NTSB, the time could vary greatly. The NTSB on its website notes the hands-on portions of investigations can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. It took four days to come out with a preliminary report this January on a smoking Metro commuter train in Washington D.C. that killed one person and sent 86 to the hospital. The entire investigation of most incidents take much longer, probably at least a year.

What would the FRA do that the NTSB won’t?   

The NTSB investigates and issues recommendations, but it doesn’t have any regulatory powers or the ability to enforce its recommendations. The FRA, which unlike the NTSB is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, can also issue subpoenas when necessary. With its U.S. Department of Transportation powers, its investigations can be a lot more thorough. In a recent investigation of crude oil train accident in West Virginia earlier this year, the FRA planned to do a complete forensic investigation, reassembling each car damaged in the accident.

The FRA also has enforcement power, allowing it to turn recommendations into mandates, and it can levy fines. In fiscal year 2013, it levied over $20 million of those.

Finally, the FRA focuses solely on trains and deals with pretty much every facet of them — not just accidents. The NTSB investigates train, plane, maritime and road accidents, too.

What has the NTSB done in Philadelphia before?

The NTSB has investigated all kinds of accidents — train, plane, boat, etc. — concerning Philadelphia. Last month, it completed its investigation of the plane crash that killed philanthropist and Daily News co-owner Lewis Katz. In 2010, the organization investigated the Ride the Ducks accident on the Delaware River that killed two Hungarian tourists.

How about the FRA?

It is involved around Philadelphia all the time, too. Anytime SEPTA engineers have complaints, they take them to the FRA. The FRA is studying high-speed rail that could become a reality for Amtrak on the Northeast Corridor in a few decades. It also investigated a derailment of a crude oil train on the Grays Ferry Bridge in 2014.

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Photo: NTSB

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