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Federal investigators are hard at work at the site of an Amtrak train that skirted off the tracks in Philadelphia Tuesday night, killing six people and injuring many more. They want to know why: Was the train speeding around the corner too quickly? Did it hit another train? Is crumbling infrastructure to blame?

We likely won’t know for some time what caused the deadly crash near Frankford, not far northeast of Center City. It’s uncommon for commuter trains like the Northeast Regional to de-rail, but it’s not uncommon for all trains. Here’s what we know about these kinds of incidents — and how we can prevent them.


At about 9:30 p.m. last night, an Amtrak train — the Northeast Regional 188 — was on its way from Washington, D.C. to New York City when it derailed not far north of Port Richmond in Philly.

After about two hours of mass chaos at the scene, city officials reported that 10 cars had derailed from the tracks, killing six people and wounding dozens more. Mayor Michael Nutter called it “an absolute disastrous mess,” adding that he “has never seen anything like this.”

So far, Mayor Michael Nutter and others have refused to speculate on the cause of the derailment, making way for the National Transportation Safety Board to come in and complete a full investigation before a releasing a cause. Full, complete reports from the NTSB on major railroad crashes can sometimes take more than a year and a half.

What will the NTSB do?

The board, which isn’t affiliated with the U.S. Department of Transportation, has already deployed what it calls its “Go Team” to investigate the crash. This team, based in Washington, D.C., is immediately called to action after aircraft crashes and major rail or highway incidents.

According to the NTSB, locomotive engineers, signal system specialists and track engineers will head working groups and smaller teams each assigned to different facets of the accident, whether that’s things like human error or infrastructure.

Similar to planes, trains are legally required to have a “black box” in each train that is designed to survive a crash and records information like speed, what direction the train was going, how the brakes were used and more.

At least once daily during the “on-scene phase” of the investigation, one of the members of the team will brief the media and the public on the latest information, but the board is careful to release only confirmed information on the crash.

After an initial investigation, the board may make preliminary safety recommendations. Then, it will spend months testing and analyzing every portion of the incident before releasing a final report.

How common are train crashes?

In America, 891 people died in 2013 as a result of train crashes — that’s about double the amount of people who died in aviation crashes in the same year. But, according to the NTSB, the majority of those fatalities were people considered “trespassers and non-trespassers,” and not just passengers on commuter trains. (In other words, that includes people on the tracks.)

In total, more than 2,500 train accidents happen in America every year — these include everything from major, catastrophic incidents with mass casualties to smaller incidents in which people improperly cross train tracks.

But this crash is a pretty big anomaly in terms of railroad safety: The federal government reports that train crashes have dropped significantly in the last 10 years — by about 42 percent — and derailments dropped as well. The number of commuter rail crashes also dropped in the same period.

With that said, the incident is the second fatal Amtrak crash of the week. Earlier this week, an Amtrak train carrying more than 170 passengers in Amite, La. collided with a truck, killing the driver.

What are some possible causes of the train derailment?

The Federal Railroad Administration reports that in 2014, 1,214 train derailments occurred across the country, 63 of which happened in Pennsylvania. A paper written in 2012 analyzing data from the previous decade showed that “broken rails or welds were the leading derailment cause on main, yard, and siding tracks.”

Other possible causes can include human error: Going too fast, using the wrong track switch, or mistakes with the brakes.

Has this happened before in Philly?

Yes, and recently. Last year, a train derailed on a bridge heading over the Schuylkill River that left two cars hanging off the bridge itself. The CSX train was a 101-car freight train heading from Chicago to Philly, according to NBC 10.

And in February, an oil train derailed just off 11th Street near I-95. But neither of these accidents caused a rupture or an oil spill.

While commuter derailments are more uncommon, a strangely similar derailment in the exact same area as the Amtrak 188 crash happened more than 40 years ago. Philly.com reports from the archives of the Inquirer that in 1943, a high-speed train derailed near what’s called “Frankford Junction,” killing 79 people and wounding another 116. It went down as one of the worst railroad disasters in U.S. history.

Are there efforts to curb train derailments?

Many, especially in the last several years. A federal law passed in 2008 required that most of the country’s major railroads needed to be outfitted with “Positive Train Control” technology by 2015, which would use monitoring systems to regulate speed and automatically slow down trains.

Based on a recent Amtrak communication pointed out here, it doesn’t appear PTC had yet been installed in the area where Amtrak 188 was traveling.

What else is the government doing?

Coincidentally, a House Appropriations Committee is considering a new transportation bill this morning that deals in part with federal funding to Amtrak in order to boost aid to help the company’s old infrastructure.

According to CNN, Amtrak has called on the federal government to bump up funding in order to fix tracks and trains, while some lawmakers are looking to drastically cut federal funding to railway systems. The version of a bill already passed by a House subcommittee would slash funding by about $100 million.

President Obama is in favor of not cutting funding, and his press secretary called it a “common sense” investment in Amtrak.

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Photo: Fox 29

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.