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Judge not, lest you too lose your situational awareness

Posted by Steve Sweeney
on Thursday, May 18, 2017

And so it begins.

Brandon Bostian surrendered to police in Philadelphia today (May 18) to face criminal charges of involuntary manslaughter, among other things, related to the May 2015 crash of Amtrak Northeast Regional train 188. That crash killed eight passengers and injured hundreds more on-board. Bostian was the Amtrak engineer at the throttle when the crash happened.

Local prosecutors declined to charge Bostian for lack of evidence of a crime and the National Transportation Safety Board decided earlier this year that the engineer simply lost “situational awareness.” Undeterred, victims’ families took a less-used route to secure charges from the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office anyway. Hearing and trial dates have yet to be announced.

Meanwhile, in Canada, former Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Engineer Tom Harding is set to go to trial in Quebec in September — along with three former co-workers — on charges of criminal negligence causing death. You might remember the event they are tied to: The July 6, 2013, wreck and firestorm that killed 47 people and destroyed much of downtown Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. Prosecutors there took a year to gather evidence, but ultimately charged Harding and the others. A report from Canada's Transportation Safety Board outlined a series of missteps that led to the loaded crude oil train rolling downhill, gaining speed, and causing havoc.

The cases are similar. Each feature one person alone in a locomotive cab and in charge of a train at or about the time it caused lots of death and destruction. Oh, and one other thing: Victims and their survivors (and prosecutors) want a pound of flesh.

So when it comes, brace yourself for media coverage from Philadelphia and greater Montreal that paints both men in the worst light possible. Bostian, a railfan, couldn't possibly be a serious professional because he "likes trains," some might argue.

Expect that few in the media will get the operational details of railroading correct, at least at first. (You owe me a nickel for every time a reporter talks about "parking brakes" and "emergency brakes." You owe me a dime every time Harding and Bostian are called "drivers.")

Oh, and expect the painfully obvious to be absent: The downside risk of leaving an engineer alone in a locomotive cab is that sooner or later, a human will make a mistake, or a system mistake will overtake the engineer that cannot be corrected.

In Harding's case, the Canadian Transportation Safety Board said the now bankrupt and gone MM&A had a "weak safety culture that did not have a functioning safety management system to manage risks."

For Bostian, NTSB report writers make it clear that they believe an installed and operational positive train control system would have prevented his loss of awareness from causing a disaster.

In light of the what we know so far, are these engineers guilty of crimes? Should they be exculpated for undetected organizational failures? That's for judges and juries to say.

For our part, Trains editors and contributors will report on the latest from both trials in print and on News Wire as they unfold, offering you context you can't get anywhere else.

Only what you would expect. Only from Trains.

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