Amtrak Train 188 Accident and Politicized Vengeful Justice

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William Rockefeller and Brandon Bostian are two men with much in common. They were both qualified, experienced and respected railroad locomotive engineers who made serious mistakes that resulted in multiple fatalities and many injuries. After compiling exemplary work records over years, Rockefeller and Bostian were both at the helm of fast moving trains that entered curves at excessive speeds with tragic consequences.

On December 1, 2013, Rockefeller was operating a southbound Metro North train on the Hudson Line that entered the 30 mph Spuyten Duyvil curve at 82 mph. The train derailed and the accident resulted in 4 deaths and 61 injured. It was later determined that Rockefeller had undiagnosed severe obstructive sleep apnea. Sadly, he fell asleep at the controls at the wrong time.

Less than two years later on May 12, 2015, Bostian was operating Northbound Amtrak Train 188 on the Northeast Corridor and entered the 50 mph Frankford Junction curve at 106 mph. The derailment resulted in 8 deaths and scores injured. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded that the Amtrak accident occurred because of “situational awareness.” Bostian lost track of where he was on the route in the nighttime darkness, and believed that he was beyond this unusually sharp curve when he was not.

The gross human failures of these two men caused 12 deaths, many serious injuries, much pain and suffering to the survivors, and extreme grief to the affected family members. Bostian’s and Rockefeller’s railroad careers were immediately shattered and their lives upended. Both men will surely struggle emotionally for the rest of their lives and will never forget the great harm they caused.

The NTSB’s rigorous investigations established that both Rockefeller and Bostian had excellent work and disciplinary records, were not impaired by drugs or alcohol, and were not using a cell phone or any other personal electronic device. All indications are that they were both conscientiously performing their jobs to the best of their human ability.

Another commonality between the two accidents is that these excessive speed derailments should never have occurred; the signal systems should never have allowed trains to enter these two curves at unsafe speeds. The safety technology to limit train speeds approaching these two curves not only existed decades before these accidents happened, but the safety equipment was actually in place at Spuyten Duyvil and on the Metro North passenger trains for approximately 30 years, and on the Northeast Corridor passenger locomotives and at Frankford Junction for more than 50 years. No new train control equipment was required; the long existing hardware just wasn’t used to limit speeds approaching these two curves. (It was used at Frankford Junction in the southbound direction, but Bostian’s train was traveling northbound.)

For the Spuyten Duyvil accident, the New York City Bronx district attorney’s office decided not to prosecute because they found no evidence of criminal wrong doing. No criminal intent or recklessness was identified. They determined that the accident was just that – an accident caused by a fallible human being.

Rockefeller was subsequently awarded a Metro North lifetime disability pension because of the accident, which is in addition to his federal railroad retirement benefits. And, Rockefeller is suing Metro North for $10 million because the railroad failed to enforce safe train speeds using the long existing and very capable Metro North signal system. Who knows, Rockefeller may win the lawsuit on the merits.

Bostian, on the other hand, has not fared as well legally or financially. The Philadelphia district attorney’s office declined to prosecute for the obvious reason – there was no evidence indicating criminality. This did not sit well with the families of those who died, and one of their lawyers filed a private criminal complaint against Bostian. The aggrieved and their attorneys want Bostian sent to jail because of their mistaken belief that Bostian engaged in reckless conduct.

Railroading was the primary and central focal point of Bostian’s life and his stellar Amtrak record before the accident shows an absolute commitment to safety. The speed of 106 mph was actually lower than that permitted just beyond the fateful curve and at many other locations on the Northeast Corridor. As the NTSB determined, Bostian just lost track of where he was on the route in the nighttime darkness, and didn’t realize his error until the train was about to enter the unusually sharp curve.

Philadelphia Municipal Court President Judge Marsha Neifield, because of the private criminal complaint, subsequently ordered the Philadelphia district attorney to charge and prosecute Bostian. Citing a potential conflict of interest, the Philadelphia district attorney’s office avoided doing this by referring the case to the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office, which instituted the criminal proceedings against Bostian.

Then at a court hearing, Philadelphia Municipal Court Judge Thomas Gehret ruled that there was not enough evidence to warrant a criminal trial. Gehret said “Based on that evidence, I think it’s more likely than not this was an accident and not criminal.” The state prosecutor appealed Gehret’s decision and it was overturned. Common Pleas Court Judge Kathryn Lewis reinstated the charges against Bostian including eight counts of involuntary manslaughter and 246 counts of reckless endangerment.

Based on the evidence to date, the prosecution of Bostian is an injustice that reeks of politics and vengeance!

The safety technology to prevent Bostian’s accident not only preexisted, but was in place at Frankford Junction and on the Northeast Corridor passenger locomotives for more than 50 years. No new equipment was required. In fact, the curve was already protected in the southbound direction by the cab signaling, and Amtrak turned this safety equipment on in the northbound direction to limit train speeds approaching the Frankford Junction curve after the accident and before trains started running again. The public has not been told why after the Metro North accident (and many other speed related accidents here in the United States and around the world) the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) directed Metro North to enforce curve speeds after the first accident, but did not direct Amtrak to do the same. This made no sense.

Although no mention was found in the NTSB report about speed signs approaching the accident curve, Dennis Pierce, president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, said to a congressional committee that “the simple use of speed signs in the approach to the curve, as a reminder, may have prevented this accident.” The FRA Emergency Order 31 issued after the accident directed Amtrak to “enhance speed restriction signage.” It is hard to fathom why a railroad line with speeds up to 150 mph wouldn’t have signs approaching low speed curves, and why the NTSB’s report didn’t address this issue.

Focusing on Engineer Brandon Bostian and his performance was a necessary part of the accident investigation. However, his human failing was not criminal and is dwarfed by the failure of Metro North, Amtrak and the FRA to enforce safe speeds well before these accidents occurred, by using long existing equipment for very little cost. The complete story of the Amtrak Train 188 accident has not yet been told.

Anyone interested in this accident should carefully read the NTSB report and the attached board-member statements. The report makes very clear that the best and well-intentioned human beings can make tragic and fatal mistakes. And the report also makes clear that the accident would have been prevented had the existing safety equipment been used.

Internet link to NTSB report is

https://www.ntsb.gov/investigations/AccidentReports/Reports/RAR1602.pdf

The NTSB is not a criminal investigative body, but is believed to be the best accident investigative agency in the world. They did not uncover a shred of evidence that hints to any criminal intent, carelessness or recklessness by Bostian leading to the accident, or at any time in his railroad career. The consensus of multiple prosecutors in the Philadelphia district attorney’s office was that there was no crime and they refused to prosecute. And then one judge ruled that the evidence pointed to an accident and not a crime.

Sadly, the case is moving forward and a jury will be asked to decide on criminality. I am just a railroader and not a legal scholar. However, since the NTSB, one judge, and an office of experienced prosecutors all decided that there was no evidence of a crime, I cannot fathom any possibility that 12 lay people will find Bostian guilty of anything criminal beyond a reasonable doubt, unless they do it for wrong, emotional or activist reasons. Bostian’s trial will be a prime example of politicized vengeful prosecution.

The American justice system is the best in the world, but is still very imperfect. Sometimes wrong convictions occur even when all the participants act in good faith. However, continuing to prosecute Bostian when everything points to his innocence raises serious questions about why this is happening. My heroes in this case are the NTSB for painstakingly reporting the facts and their analysis, the Philadelphia district attorney’s office for refusing to prosecute, and not backing down, Judge Thomas Gehret for taking a hard look at the facts and throwing out criminal charges, the Philadelphia Inquirer for its May 10, 2017 editorial “Can’t just blame engineer for Amtrak 188’s derailment,” as well as Bostian’s attorneys for representing him.

And just recently, Bostian has instituted a lawsuit against Amtrak because the railroad failed “to provide plaintiff with a safe environment to work in” and several related claims. It would be more than bizarre and a stain on our justice system if Bostian was criminally convicted but won the civil lawsuit.

Hopefully, justice and not vengeance will prevail.

Comments are requested.
 



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