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Fatal Amtrak crash near Philadelphia: What went wrong?

On a morning, earlier this month, an Amtrak train was travelling at over 100 miles per hour near the Philadelphia suburb of Chester. On the same track was a crew of maintenance workers operating a backhoe. By the time that the train's conductor recognized that the track was blocked, it was too late.

The train slammed into the backhoe, killing two of the men on the maintenance crew and sending about 35 other people to the hospital with injuries. The cause of the mix-up that led to the crash is still under investigation. But one thing is clear: This simply should not have happened.

The fatal collision occurred on April 3rd. Since that time, investigators and news agencies have been looking into the details of the crash, as well as Amtrak's less-than-stellar safety record in recent decades. Here are several pieces of information that should be cause for concern:

  • People who live near the accident site said that Amtrak employees had been doing work on the track for weeks, suggesting that the crew's presence should have been known well ahead of time
  • A similar train accident involving construction equipment occurred 28 years ago at nearly the same spot
  • Readers may remember that a fatal train derailment occurred north of Philadelphia last may
  • In response to last year's derailment, Amtrak implemented an automatic braking system called "positive train control," and it is unclear if that technology was operating at the time of this crash
  • One of the crew members killed was a highly respected industry veteran with about 40 years on the job, suggesting that he was likely operating in accordance with the rules

A railroad engineering expert interviewed by USA Today said that industry protocols are strict when it comes to on-track maintenance work, and that repair orders are generally approved well in advance by top officials. He added that "a machine like [the backhoe] doesn't go out on the track unless someone in transportation knows it's out there."

In an era of impressive safety and communications technologies, it is difficult to imagine how an accident like this could be allowed to happen. It seems clear that negligence of some sort was to blame, and Amtrak may soon be facing liability lawsuits from crash victims and their families.

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