Amtrak 188

Why Philly’s DA won’t bring charges in fatal Amtrak 188 train derailment

Eight people died. 200 were injured. The engineer was speeding. But it’s complicated.



Anna Orso/Billy Penn

Amtrak 188 engineer Brandon Bostian won’t face criminal charges in the May 2015 crash of Amtrak 188 in Philadelphia that killed eight people and injured 200 more.

The decision to not charge Bostian comes, according to Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, because there’s not enough evidence to support criminal charges. From the release:

The evidence indicates that the derailment was caused by the engineer operating the train far in excess of the speed limit,” the DA’s office said in a written statement. “However, we cannot conclude that the evidence rises to the high level necessary to charge the engineer or anyone else with a criminal offense. We have no evidence that the engineer acted with criminal “intent” or criminal “knowledge” within the special meaning of those terms under Pennsylvania law for purposes of criminal charges. Nor do we believe there is sufficient evidence to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, criminal recklessness, which would be the only other basis for criminal liability. Pennsylvania law specially states that one acts with criminal recklessness when a person “consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk.” Based on the available information, we do not have evidence sufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the engineer “consciously” disregarded the risk.

Experts question whether Williams or any district attorney would even know how to prosecute him.

“By my guess nobody remotely associated with the local office of a district attorney has ever investigated a similar derailment,” said Bob Pottroff, a nationally-known train accident lawyer. “They have to be 100 percent dependent on federal authorities who are deeply embedded with the railroad industry.”

Pottroff would be right. Though Amtrak accidents occur about five to 10 times a year in Philadelphia (the vast majority causing no deaths and few injuries), charges have not been brought forward against an engineer during Williams’ time in office and likely going back much farther.

“It is basically a foreign language requirement for a prosecutor’s office on a local basis,” Pottroff said. “The expertise needed to prosecute those cases would be hard (to come by).”

For this investigation, Williams’ office noted in the statement his office worked with Amtrak, the Philadelphia Police Department and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Two assistant district attorneys reviewed phone records, audio tapes and the NTSB’s investigation. The office did not indicate whether it interviewed Bostian.

Last year, the NTSB released its investigation into the crash and ruled Bostian was at fault, though he was not found to be sleepy, operating his cell phone or under the influence of any drugs or alcohol. The federal organization focused on a radio conversation between Bostian, a dispatcher and a SEPTA Regional Rail engineer who claimed rocks were being thrown at his car around Frankford, where Bostian’s train was traveling. Amtrak 188 sped up to 106 mph around the curve.

This portion of track was not equipped with positive train control or even a less technologically-advanced piece of equipment that could have prevented the train from traveling at such a speed.

“Primary to me is the human behavior,” said Christopher Hart, the NTSB board chairman last year. “Ideally, we don’t need a backup.”

Tom Kline, attorney for the victims, seized on the NTSB’s ruling. He did not respond to a request for comment but said last year, “Mr. Bostian has, to this date, to my knowledge, had no significant discipline for this incident, we don’t even know where he is. “We don’t know if there’s ever going to be a bringing of him to civil and criminal justice. [Our clients] want to see some real answers here. They want to see Mr. Bostian brought to justice.”

With the Feds having halted their investigation last year, Bostian will walk from the accident without any criminal charges.

“I’m surprised only that our federal government didn’t dump all of it in his lap as they normally do,” Pottroff said. “This is a technology issue. You can’t equip somebody with substandard technology and expect them to behave perfectly every day. I’m tickled to know he’s not being charged.”

Want some more? Explore other Amtrak 188 stories.

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