Sixty-one minutes before he reported for the northbound run that ended with the death of eight passengers, train engineer Brandon Bostian completed a southbound run that likely turned exhausting and nerve-wracking because of an electronic failure, a knowledgeable source says.
“I can tell you from decades of doing this that when he got there he was frazzled,” says the source, a longtime engineer who asked not to be identified.
The source reports that Bostian’s prior train—Acela express 2121—suffered what is known as a “cab signal failure” after it departed New York for Washington at 2 p.m. on Tuesday.
As a result, Bostian could not rely on the electronic indicators and audible alerts in the cab that present an engineer with the information conveyed by the hundreds of trackside signals, along with the advised speed.
Instead, Bostian would have been required to directly observe, register and interpret the signals with no backup in the event he happened to miss a crucial one because he was momentarily distracted or his vision was obscured.
An engineer in these circumstances cannot lose his focus for even an instant for fear he will miss an alert advising him of a train up ahead or an upcoming switch or any number of other circumstances that would require him to slow.
“It’s absolutely crazy on the nerves,” the source says.
If the cab signal failure had been detected before departing the station, Railroad Rule 554 would have precluded Bostian from leaving until the system was repaired and tested.
But, the failure apparently occurred after Bostian set out. He would have been allowed to proceed at no more than 40 mph and to stop altogether upon encountering any restricting signals. He also would have been required to notify the dispatcher immediately, reporting the location and any presumed cause of the failure.
Upon being notified, the dispatcher must check that the track ahead is not occupied. Railroad Rule 556 then allows the dispatcher to authorize the train to proceed, but at no more than 79 mph.
And here, the diabolical math by which engineers live would have kicked in; the longer the delay, the shorter the break at the end.
And on top of that is the constant pressure to be on time.
In this instance, the train arrived 26 minutes late. Bostian would have needed another 10 minutes to apply the hand brake and complete his paperwork. He would have been left with just a 61-minute break, rather than the scheduled hour-and-27-minute break before he was to report for his next run.
Until recently, there was an unwritten agreement with Amtrak that engineers would get a break of at least 90 minutes after a run. That rule is now said to be routinely ignored by Amtrak.
An engineer who feels too drained for a quick turnaround can still call Crew Management Services—the office in Wilmington, Delaware, that manages rosters and dispatches crews— and ask for “relief,” meaning to be replaced by a more rested engineer.
Such a call would have been recorded.
But as of Friday afternoon, The Daily Beast could not determine whether Bostian made a relief request. Amtrak referred to the NTSB any questions about Bostian’s previous trip and turnaround break as described by the source. The NTSB says that it is still exclusively occupied with processing perishable evidence at the accident scene and has not yet investigated the circumstances leading up to the tragedy. Bostian’s lawyer did not respond to several requests for comment.
If Bostian did call CMS, his request must have been denied. Bostian is said to have reported for his next run after that break of just 61 minutes.
The engine was new and top of the line, with gizmos that would integrate it into an automatic speed-control system, such as was mandated by Congress in 2008 following a train accident in California that killed 25. Amtrak had finally installed the necessary transponders along the line, but as reported by The New York Times there have been delays in setting up the necessary wireless network.
If the speed control system had ever been operational, but simply not functioning when train 188 was scheduled to depart on Tuesday evening, Rule 554 would have applied just as if it there were a cab signal failure. The train would have been prohibited from leaving the station.
But since the system had never been operational, this rule regarding failures did not apply. The train rolled out with Bostian at the controls.
And if the knowledgeable source is correct, Bostian was frazzled and exhausted.
“He was already behind the 8-ball,” the source says.
Back in 2009—the year before he progressed from conductor to engineer—Bostian had posted on Facebook his support for rules that limited work hours for train crews.
“To prevent crews from being placed in a situation where their fatigue could lead them to make a catastrophic operating error that leads to a serious derailment, collision or injury,” he had written.
He had also commented on the online forum trainroders.com that “it shouldn't take an act of Congress to get industry to adopt common-sense safety systems on their own.”
As recorded by the video camera in the engine's nose, the train accelerated from 70 to 100 miles per hour as it approached a curve where the speed limit was just 50.
Where a safety system would have kicked in, the train sped up to 106.
In the next instant, the emergency brake was applied, too late to prevent the catastrophic derailment that killed eight who seem to have been picked from the very best among us.
None of that is explained by the earlier trip. But you have to wonder if the outcome might have been different were Bostian not as frazzled as the source says any engineer would have been.