Fatal Amtrak derailment in Chester under probe
The crash, the second fatal Amtrak derailment in the region within the last year, suspended service between Philadelphia and Washington, and shut down SEPTA trains on the Wilmington/Newark line.
Amtrak Train 89, operating from New York to Savannah, Ga., struck a backhoe on the tracks around 7:50 a.m. Sunday near Sixth and Booth Streets in Chester, officials said. The impact derailed the train’s engine.
The two people killed were Amtrak employees; one was the backhoe’s operator, said the National Transportation Safety Board. The victims were on or near the maintenance vehicle when it was struck, said Ruth Miller, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.
None of those hurt suffered life-threatening injuries.
Trains in that area travel as fast as 110 mph, authorities said; Amtrak officials did not say how fast the train was going when it hit the backhoe.
The NTSB recovered the train’s event-data recorder along with video from forward- and inward-facing cameras to be analyzed in Washington, officials said. The investigative agency will be looking at human and mechanical factors as causes, but several authorities said Sunday that a problem with dispatching could have been a key contributor to the crash.
During a brief news conference Sunday, Amtrak officials declined to comment on why one of their vehicles was on the track while trains were traveling on it. SEPTA, which leases parts of Amtrak’s rail system, received notification about track work being performed on that stretch of rail, spokesman Andrew Busch said, but was told the maintenance wouldn’t interfere with trains.
“What I want to know is, how does something like that happen when everything’s supposed to be computerized?” asked Rebecca Coleman, 62, outside the Fare & Square, a grocery store near the site of the crash. “Aren’t they supposed to know where everything is on the tracks? How did that happen? Who was asleep at the wheel?”
Safeguards should exist to prevent a crash like Sunday’s, said Allan Zarembski, a University of Delaware professor and director of the university’s Railroad Engineering and Safety Program. The backhoe could have been either on the same track as train 89, or on an adjacent track, he said. If the vehicle was on the same track as the train, a dispatcher would have needed to give the crew authorization to be there. Maintenance work is performed within precise windows of time when trains aren’t using the rails, Zarembski said.
Maintenance crews perform work on rails adjacent to active tracks, he said, but workers receive safety training and are briefed on safety issues before beginning their assignments, he said. There also are staff positioned to warn work crews about approaching trains with a flag and air horn.
“All the training and all the rules and all the protection requirements are that it should never, ever” obstruct the adjacent track, Zarembski said.
There were 341 passengers and seven crew members on board Train 89, according to Amtrak. SEPTA buses took uninjured passengers to Wilmington and 30th Street Station on Sunday morning.
Allyson Aborn, of New York City, described the accident as “a crash and then a wall of fire outside the window.”
She said she hurt a knee but planned to continue on to Washington, where her son was “having a baby as we speak.”
Beth Blakely, 36, of Philadelphia, was on her way to visit family in Maryland when she felt a jarring impact that she likened to a car’s head-on collision. She was surprised by how long the train continued to move after the crash.
” ‘Why aren’t we stopping?’ ” she remembered thinking. “What was going on? What was all this stuff flying past the train?”
The impact with the maintenance vehicle took place in Chester, officials said, but the train continued moving for another mile before coming to a stop in Trainer.
Panicked passengers in Blakely’s car, the second from the front, rushed to the rear of the train after the crash. A few insisted on getting off the train immediately, but most waited on board for about an hour before being evacuated, she said.
At Trainer United Methodist Church, not far from the collision, passengers waited, some wrapped in Red Cross blankets. Blakely was among them until a friend came to pick her up. She recalled people calling family and friends to let them know they were OK.
“There were a lot of scared and frustrated people,” she said.
In Wilmington, customers swarmed a Greyhound station across the street from the train station as word spread about the crash. Travelers piled into Uber cars with strangers, looking to share the costs of a trip to their destinations.
Similar crowds filled 30th Street Station, where passengers from the derailed train waited for trains bound for New York. By Sunday afternoon, the American Red Cross had set up an area at 30th Street to distribute water, snacks, and hot chocolate.
Steve Forbes, a former Republican presidential candidate, was a passenger on the train; he was uninjured, according to C-SPAN.
The region’s legislators, including Sens. Tom Carper (D., Del.) and Robert P. Casey Jr. (D., Pa.), said they had been in contact with federal investigators about the crash and would continue requesting updates about the causes behind it.
U.S. Rep. Robert Brady visited the crash site Sunday. Asked whether he was recalling the derailment of Amtrak Train 188 on May 12, he said “absolutely.” That derailment in Philadelphia killed eight people and injured hundreds.
Another Amtrak train derailed March 14 in Kansas, near Dodge City. No one was killed in that incident.
Sunday’s crash mirrored an accident at nearly the same location 28 years ago. In that January 1988 crash, a control-tower operator failed to divert a train away from a maintenance vehicle working on tracks. No one died in that collision, but 25 were injured.
In another local rail incident on Sunday, authorities said a person was struck about 7:30 p.m. in Bensalem near the Cornwells Heights station by a train heading from Harrisburg to New York. The victim’s condition was not immediately disclosed.
Amtrak had restored limited service between Wilmington and Philadelphia by Sunday afternoon, and expected all trains to be running by Monday, though it said trains running between the two cities could experience delays. SEPTA was uncertain Sunday night how much of its service on that route would be available for Monday’s rush hour.
Anyone with questions about friends and family can contact Amtrak’s Emergency Hotline at 800-532-9101.