(Chester, Pennsylvania – April 3, 2016)
Amtrak’s Savannah, GA-bound “Palmetto” passenger train, carrying a total of 341 passengers and seven crew members, suffered a horrific accident early Sunday morning at about 7:53 A.M., EDT, when it struck a backhoe performing maintenance along a heavily travelled Amtrak-owned main line. The mainline tracks consist of five parallel tracks that, on an average weekday, carry 143 trains operated either by Amtrak or the Southeast Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA). The tragedy killed two Amtrak workers and injured at least 30 passengers. The locomotive also derailed in the accident.
Much of what was being released on the tragedy came from Senator Chuck Schumer, who had talked to Amtrak Chairman Anthony Coscia, and was revealed by an Associate Press story.
SEPTA suspended service on its Wilmington, DE-Newark, NJ line, and Amtrak made a similar suspension of rail traffic between New York City and Philadelphia along its Northeast Corridor line.
It was unknown as to whether the backhoe was performing regular maintenance or if it was working on damage to trees and power lines resulting from extremely high winds that passed through the Philadelphia area earlier Sunday morning. Media photos and video of the scene also showed the active presence of a contract crew using a Loram rail grinder. It was unknown whether its assignment was connected to that of the crew operating the backhoe, who both perished in the collision.
Senator Schumer, however, laid blame for the mishap squarely on human error, telling the AP that “Clearly, this seems very likely to be human error. There is virtually no excuse for a backhoe to be on an active track.”
Based probably upon his update from the Amtrak Board Chairman, the senator further explained that “Amtrak has a 20-step protocol for having backhoes on the tracks, and no trains are supposed to go on a track where such equipment is present.”
Investigators from both the National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Railroad Administration were arriving on the tragic site late Sunday morning and into Sunday afternoon.
Passengers, among them disability rights activist Ari Ne’eman, 28, of Silver Spring, MD, who was bound for Washington, DC after a speaking engagement in New York City, and who was riding in the train’s second car, were picked up by a fleet of SEPTA buses and taken to a nearby church, where a staging area had been set up.
“The car started shaking wildly, there was a smell of smoke, it looked like a small fire and then a window across from us blew out,” he told the AP in describing his harrowing ride. “It was a very frightening experience,” Ne’eman continued. “I’m frankly very glad that I was not on the first car, where there were injuries (Senator Schumer had also reported that debris from the crash flew into the first two cars of “The Palmetto”). The moment that the car stopped, I said ‘Shema’, a Jewish prayer. I was so thankful that the train had come to a stop and we were OK.”