Still more questions than answers in the wreck of Amtrak 188

The NTSB released its preliminary findings into the Amtrak 188 derailment on February 1st, and to be perfectly blunt, we still know about as much as we did the day after the crash.  We know the “how” of the derailment — that the train went into the curve at Frankford Junction at 106 mph instead of the 50 mph speed limit — and we knew that on May 13th, but we are still no closer to knowing the “why”.  The NTSB report rules out virtually every form of mechanical failure, so focus has descended on Amtrak 188’s engineer, Brandon Bostian.

However, the NTSB’s initial safety recommendation, asking for inward-facing cameras in locomotive cabs, essentially admits that there is no way of ever knowing exactly what happened in the cab of Amtrak locomotive #601.  This is distressing, since there are two major theories for what happened, with diametrically opposing conclusions as to fault.

The first theory is that Bostian zoned out or lost situational awareness, and deliberately accelerated, thinking that he was somewhere else.  In this event, engineer error is the major proximate cause of the crash, and Bostian is primarily responsible.

The second theory is that, possibly in response to his locomotive getting hit with a rock (as frequently happens in North Philadelphia, and had just happened to a 30th Street-bound SEPTA train nearby), Bostian flinched in such a way as to render himself dazed or unconscious.  (There is no way to medically determine if the concussion Bostian sustained happened either just before, or during, the crash.)  In that case, Bostian is innocent, and the primary responsibility rests on Amtrak for the failure of its safety precautions (the combination of the lack of either automatic train control (ATC) or positive train control (PTC) on the northbound tracks of the NEC at Frankford Junction, and the failure of the locomotive’s deadman/alerter system to recognize Bostian’s incapacity in time to prevent disaster).

However, with Bostian’s memory, rendered unreliable by that concussion, as the only record of what happened, we have no way of knowing which of these two cases actually applies.  That is no fault of Mr. Bostian’s; similar uncertainty has reigned in other cases, where the engineer did not survive to be interviewed by the NTSB.  With personal-injury lawyers circling, the choice before the civil courts is a guessing game, where if they get it right, it will be a tragedy, and if they get it wrong, it will be a dreadful miscarriage of justice.  As it stands, because this question will never be resolved to anyone’s satisfaction, it is almost certain that Bostian will never operate a train again.

Perhaps a more interesting question, and one that is conspicuously absent from the NTSB report, is whether the FRA regulations concerning the survivability of passenger cars played any role in saving lives.  American railroad equipment is infamously overweight, loaded up with steel armor to meet a buff strength requirement, so that it does not deform in a low-speed crash.  Despite this, business class car 81528 on Amtrak 188 was smashed to flinders, to the point where first responders didn’t even realize it had once been an 85 foot long steel tube with people inside.  Moreover, passengers still died in the coach class cars behind the business class car, despite those cars’ much less damaged condition.  The rest of the world uses a crash-energy management (CEM) standard for passenger car safety (which encourages safety features similar to the crumple zones in modern automobiles), which makes cars signginicantly lighter weight, which in turn improves both everyday performance and braking in emergencies.  It isn’t clear that CEM would have made for a less deadly crash at 106 mph, but the unwillingness of the NTSB’s Survival Factors Group to even entertain the question is disturbing, especially when the FRA’s process to adopt CEM as a standard in the US is over a year late and possibly in limbo.  Even a finding that the two standards would have had equivalent results would be a very big deal, since the buff strength standard adds enormous capital and operating costs to American railroads.

One change that looks like it’s for the better, but is not, is the installation of an ATC restriction to 45 mph on the northbound NEC at Frankford Junction.  As a short-term stopgap, this is fine, but should be refined or removed once PTC is fully deployed, since the ATC system has no way of displaying or enforcing the true 50 mph speed limit on those tracks.  The redundancy does not actually help, and the delay from the speed restriction is already significant.

Lastly, also left unaddressed is what exactly the NEC is still doing with a 50 mph curve at Frankford Junction.  Straightening the curve is bound to be expensive, but addressing this anachronism would be far more effective, and for less money, than many of the proposals on the table to improve high-speed rail on the NEC.

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Closures, delays and suspensions announced in advance as Winter Storm arrives

  • Cars parked on snow emergency routes in the City of Philadelphia will be towed starting at 21:00 Friday.
  • PPA garages in Center City are offering flat-rate $5 parking for each 24-hour period.
  • SEPTA will be shutting down all service except the Market-Frankford and Broad Street Lines at 4:00 AM Saturday.  CCT will run for dialysis patients only.  Bus, trolley, NHSL, and Regional Rail service will resume, as conditions warrant, beginning Sunday morning.
  • PATCO will run modified schedules on Saturday and Sunday.
  • Amtrak is reducing train schedules today and Saturday.
  • NJ Transit will cross-honor all fares from 0:01 Saturday to 23:59 Sunday, but has not announced any service reductions, cancellations, or detours.
  • DART First State has suspended all bus and paratransit service all day Saturday.
  • All flights at Philadelphia International Airport are cancelled on Saturday.  Some Friday evening flights have also been cancelled.
  • The Pennsylvania Turnpike is reducing speed limits to 45 mph and banning certain types of truck trailers as of 0:01 from Breezewood to the Delaware River, and north on the Extension as far as Lehigh Valley.
  • The New Jersey Turnpike reduced speed limits to 45 mph south of Exit 6 (Pennsylvania Turnpike) at 19:17 Friday evening.

Reminders for today, Pope Friday

  • SEPTA Regional Rail is on a Saturday Schedule, except for Wilmington/Newark and Cynwyd which are on special schedules.
  • Suburban Station is closed until 4 AM Monday.
  • 5th St/Independence, 15th St, and City Hall stations are closed until 5 AM Monday.
  • City transit is running, but lots of buses are being detoured around the secure vehicle perimeter around the Parkway and City Hall.  Dimensions of secure areas can be found on Lauren Ancona’s Philly Pope Map.
  • Tokens and regular passes are still good on subways and buses, and will remain good through the duration.  Special passes are only for Regional Rail, suburban trolleys/NHSL, and PATCO, Saturday and Sunday only.
  • Other agencies are adjusting schedules today.
  • The Traffic Box around Center City goes up at 6 PM this evening.  Boundaries are South Street river-to-river, Spring Garden Street, Ridge Ave, and Girard Ave.
  • The secure vehicle perimeter around Independence Hall goes up at 10 PM.  More detours.
  • The Traffic Box in University City goes up at 10 PM.  Boundaries are Powelton Ave, 38th St, and University Ave.
  • Highways (incl. I-76, I-676, and the Ben Franklin Bridge) start closing at 10 PM.

And last but not least:

  • The streets are safe and the weather is beautiful.  Go walking outside!

 

Dear New Yorkers

If Governor Andrew Cuomo’s continued blithering idiocy manages to stall Amtrak’s Gateway tunnels until after one or both of the Hudson River Tunnels fails,

and if Mayor Bill De Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton succeed in wiping out the Times Square pedestrian plazas, one of America’s most successful urban street interventions, over a handful (sorry) of boob-related incidents,

please, please, please, do not all move to Philadelphia at once.  There are eight million of you, and as we are in the midst of proving, we have problems when more than a half million people or so show up at any one time.  (We will totally take that first half million, though.)  Also, you seem to have a penchant for electing dumb fuckups who ruin everything, and that is about the last thing we need to do.

 

More in sympathy than in gloating,

-STP

The Secret Service Is Not a Transportation Agency

Since SEPTA’s service plan for the Papal Visit came out, transportation experts and casual riders alike have been picking apart what seem to be obvious flaws. As suggestions for improvement are met with uncharacteristic silence from 1234 Market Street, the picture has become much clearer: it’s not SEPTA’s transportation plan, it’s the transit component of a security plan, and in that light, of course it makes no goddamned sense as a transportation plan.

Most reporting on transportation for the Papal Mass on the Parkway has focused on a simple syllogism: 1) 1,500,000 people each turned out for the Phillies parade in 2008 and Live 8 in 2005. Both times, every mode of transportation in the area melted down from demand well over capacity. 2) 2,000,000-2,500,000 visitors are expected to come see His Holiness. 3) Every mode of transportation is going to melt down again.

But the SEPTA preliminary service plan only partially optimizes itself for capacity. The restriction of Regional Rail to only a couple dozen stations makes some sense in light of the lessons learned in 2005 and 2008, but the particular station selection is odd, and misses not only high-ridership stations, but also large concentrations of Catholics, indicating a failure of market research if nothing else. Meanwhile, the Broad Street Line, which carries about as many riders by itself as the entire Regional Rail system does put together, also has a bizarre selection of stations open. It is picking up passengers from Fern Rock — with a tiny parking lot and a connection to a Regional Rail station that is being bypassed — and bypassing Olney, with a higher ridership of both walkup riders and riders connecting from bus lines. Stations like Erie that would take up the slack for the closed Chestnut Hill East Line are also to remain shuttered. The express tracks on North Broad are not leveraged at all.

SEPTA knows where its ridership comes from and also how to optimize its own capacity. This plan does not, quite, do that, even considering all of the actual hard constraints.

The other shoe finally dropped in the dead-news period around the Independence Day weekend, with rumors swirling about an eight-foot high security fence around Center City, Girard to South. Nobody in their right minds would ever suggest such a thing in an active, vibrant, residential city like Philadelphia, but we don’t pay the Secret Service to be in their right minds. What we do pay them for, it’s sometimes unclear, but the generally accepted answer is “paranoia”.  Moreover, while there are vibrant, urban, and residential parts of Washington, DC, they tend to be sufficiently far away from the security fortresses on and near Pennsylvania Avenue.  But it’s becoming ever more clear that a security state infrastructure with no idea how to conduct itself in a real city environment (sorry, DC) is coming to town.  That would be an amusing or frustrating annoyance, but it threatens real harm to real people.

City-dwellers rely on their Freedom of Movement no less than rural or suburban residents.  What the Secret Service want to do is kill the city for at least two days, preserve it in amber while the Pope visits, and then return it to working order.  This is not how a society works.  The entire reason to have such a massive event in a city is the pre-existing infrastructure to keep so many people fed, watered, sheltered from the elements, and so forth.  That infrastructure isn’t just buildings, wires, and pipes, it’s the people to run them, and right now as many of those people as can are booking the weekend or the entire week out of town.

Moreover, whenever there is such a large gathering of people, there is an uptick in the rate of serious medical emergencies, from the increased population if nothing else.  The last time a Bishop of Rome came to Philadelphia, 40 people were hospitalized for heart problems (and there was also a swarm of bees).  Add in to that the “miles of walking” that the City and the Secret Service are asking the faithful to do this time, and the largely suburban demographics of American Catholicism where walking long distances is less of a thing.  If the weather is sunny and warm, we will see heat exhaustion.  If the weather is rainy and windy, those caught unprepared could suffer hypothermia, even at room temperature.  Overall, the security measures intended to save lives will exacerbate health problems and put many more lives at risk.  And the authorities have made no mention of how emergency vehicles will get around the swarms of pedestrians within the secure zone to reach people in distress.

I have held off on writing this post for a long time, mostly because I don’t know of a good direction to channel the anger I have at this situation.  Fixing this won’t be a matter of adding one station to the list of operating stations, it requires a complete rethink of how we plan for secure spaces, and also the priorities we give to keeping people safe from the most common and present dangers as opposed to the most lurid fears of our imaginations.  The last time the feds tried to pull one on us in the name of security, by closing the 500 block of Chestnut Street to all traffic, we eventually organized to tell them to go pound sand.  Sadly, it seems that the preferred option this time is to just let them do what they like, in the knowledge that they’re only going to be here for a week.  One hopes that, if the disruptions were to last any longer, there would be more signs of open revolt.  For that matter, I live in hope that there will be more targeted outrage between now and September.

Wednesday morning service disrupted on PATCO and SEPTA after storm

The violent thunderstorm that swept over Greater Philadelphia Tuesday evening, disrupting all modes of travel during the evening rush, has apparently let the magic smoke out of at least six area rail lines. The most serious outage is PATCO, which is entirely without electric power and does not expect restoration until after the morning rush.

New Jersey Transit buses will have three extra burdens this morning, since in addition to cross-honoring PATCO fares and contending with detours around storm-damaged roads, they will be carrying passengers from the Atlantic City line, which also remains suspended. NJT has, in its usual inimitable way, been less communicative about what is wrong with the ACRL and when they expect it to be fixed. The only statement that affirmatively said that service would remain bustituted through the morning was a tweeted @-reply:

And on the PA side of the river, SEPTA is reporting that the Media/Elwyn and Fox Chase Lines are out entirely, the Paoli/Thorndale Line is out west of Malvern, and the Norristown High Speed Line will be suspended between Norristown and Radnor. The NHSL outage is the only one that has been definitively stated that it will last through the morning. Also, bus routes may be on detour due to debris. As usual, the most up-to-date information can be found on SEPTA’s eye-bleedingly designed system status page.

About the engineer lawyering up

I’ve seen quite a lot of nonsense being written about the engineer of Amtrak 188 lawyering up and not giving a statement to the Philadelphia Police, and I can’t let it all slide. So here’s a few words on the subject.

In the Navy (American or anybody else’s), if a ship away from the pier touches anything other than water, the ship’s captain is automatically court-martialed. The captain might be subsequently cleared of wrongdoing, but he’s definitely going to trial first. In much the same way, if a train touches anything other than rails, the engineer and conductor responsible for that train are going before a disciplinary hearing of some sort. Everyone knows this. Even if there were no possible criminal or civil jeopardy, anyone who’s been around a railroad for any length of time would know to lawyer up immediately.

Moreover, the reports of what the engineer has said, indicate that he has an incomplete memory of the crash itself; the NTSB says he activated the emergency brakes, he says he doesn’t remember doing that. That’s not evidence that the engineer is lying; the windshield of locomotive #601 is spiderwebbed in such a way that strongly suggests that it was broken when the engineer’s head struck it with considerable force. Quite honestly, I’d be surprised if the engineer could remember anything about the crash. That said, it’s still a truism that nobody in an interrogation room ever talked their way out of charges, so in the interests of justice, I’m glad that the engineer has the access to legal counsel he deserves. Because he’s going to need it.