Updated: 9:25 a.m., June 10

Questions remain about why a routine trip from Washington D.C. to New York turned to tragedy four Tuesdays ago.

On May 12 just after 9:30 p.m., Amtrak 188 — a Northeast Regional train on its way through the Port Richmond neighborhood — flew around a bend at 106 m.p.h. and seven train cars derailed. Eight people were killed and more than 200 were taken to local hospitals to be treated for injuries they sustained in the crash.

In the weeks since, federal, state and local officials have tried to put together a timeline of the evening and discern who was responsible for the mass-casualty event. Meanwhile, the crash has propelled our nation’s lawmakers into decidedly more intense discussions over federal funding for Amtrak and the technology it needs to install to prevent future problems.

Here’s what we’ve learned in the last four weeks about the derailment of Amtrak 188 and what it means for the future:

The crash

The National Transportation Safety Board, the federal agency that’s investigating the crash, has released little information about how or why the crash may have occurred. On June 10, the NTSB released its latest report, concluding that engineer Brandon Bostian was not on his cell phone at any point during the trip.

In a preliminary report issued last week, the agency estimated damage from the crash costs are in excess of $9 million.

The report collected the following previously-known information:

  • The train entered the Frankford Junction curve at a speed of 106 m.p.h., where the speed is restricted to 50 m.p.h.
  • No anomalies have been noted with regard to the train braking systems, signals, and track geometry.
  • The engineer activated the emergency brakes seconds before the derailment.
  • Officials have said the train accelerated from 70 mph to 100 mph in one minute prior to the derailment, but the NTSB can’t confirm that the speed-up of the train was done manually.

The engineer

Left: High school yearbook photo, courtesy of Classmates.com Right: Myspace

Bostian, 32, the train engineer who has lawyered up since the train crash, has taken a lot of public criticism since the crash, mostly because it’s still unclear as to why he was barreling around a curve at more than double what’s restricted in that area. Bostian hasn’t explained himself, and has said through his attorney that he doesn’t remember the crash itself.

There are few theories out there, some of which have been debunked:

  • Was the train running late? No. NTSB officials have said that the train left 30th Street Station on time.
  • Was the train hit by a projectile, like a rock or a gunshot? Two others trains (one SEPTA and one Acela) operating on the same night reported being hit by projectiles of some sort in the same area where the Amtrak train derailed. One of the train’s conductors also told investigators that she overheard Bostian speaking over the radio about possibly being hit by something. However, the NTSB says tapes show that report never happened. FBI experts are examining the locomotive to search for other evidence of projectiles.
  • Was the engineer distracted? Well, we don’t really know. But we do finally know that Bostian wasn’t using his cell phone. In its latest report, the NTSB concluded Bostian didn’t use it for WiFi, texting, data or a phone call at any point during the train ride. Until Wednesday June 10, they had said only that he was using it the day of the crash. That seemed obvious, and indeed, the NTSB faced some questions from a fairly aggravated Congress for taking so long to figure out if he was using it while operating the train. The NTSB had claimed it was complicated to figure out when the phone was in use, since time zones were different on the device and in carrier records.

What Amtrak is changing

In addition to Bostian, Amtrak’s taken a lot of heat for its perceive role in the crash, as it’s come out in the weeks since that the company failed to implement technology that would have almost undoubtedly prevented the tragedy from occurring.

The technology installed on train tracks is called Positive Train Control, and it automatically slows down trains that are traveling at too-high speeds — they come especially in handy when engineers err, especially since they typically don’t have the equivalent of a “co-pilot.”

The NTSB has called for Positive Train Control implementation for literally decades, and Congress put a deadline of Dec. 31 of this year for railroad companies to install it. Amtrak has said it plans to meet that deadline, making it one of the only railroad companies that will actually do so.

According to the National Journal, Amtrak President and CEO Joseph Boardman told Congress that PTC would have been installed sooner, especially in the well-traveled Northeast Corridor, if more federal funding had been made available to the company.

What the lawmakers are changing

Speaking of federal funding, the crash in Philly a month ago has added a special intensity to Congressional talks that were already happening over the amount of funding Amtrak receives each year from the federal government.

For years, Democrats have contended that the federal government should contribute more to Amtrak so it can improve its infrastructure — Republicans say Amtrak has wasted money and killed its own opportunities for financial stability, namely $1.3 billion in federal stimulus funds from 2009 that weren’t used to install PTC.

According to The Inquirer, Amtrak currently receives about $1.4 billion a year from Congress. The day after the crash occurred in May, a House committee voted (along party lines) to slash about $260 million from Amtrak’s yearly funding.

Meanwhile, a Senate committee had planned to introduce an Amtrak-related bill last month, but walked back those plans, according to the Washington Post. Sen. Cory Booker, D-NJ, told the Post that senators will “evaluate what other actions might need to be taken as part of the legislation.”

In addition, the Federal Railroad Administration issued new train speed recommendations for commuter lines on Tuesday, including putting PTC at all curves, adding more speed warning signs and possibly adding an extra person into the cabin. These regulations are already in place for Amtrak, but would apply to other commuter rails like SEPTA, according to CBS. 

The legal side

Personal injury attorneys announce lawsuits against Amtrak. Photo from @KristenJohanson on Twitter.

So far, at least six lawsuits have been filed on behalf of passengers– including one Amtrak employee — who were hurt in the crash, and experts have said that hundreds more could come, adding that Amtrak could face $200 million in liability. That amount is the federally-set “cap,” meaning Amtrak can only beheld liable for that amount for the entire lot of lawsuits filed over this crash.

Victims of the crash have two years to file suit, so attorneys for both those hurt and for Amtrak could be waiting until all suits are filed before they move forward with settlement talks. Amtrak will likely wait at least a year before moving forward with any talks of settlement until the NTSB completes its investigation.

Anna Orso

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