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After 8 months, the deadly Amtrak crash is still a mystery — but here are 2 theories

The derailment of Amtrak 188 killed eight people, but it's still not clear how it happened.
The derailment of Amtrak 188 killed eight people, but it's still not clear how it happened.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

One of the scariest things about the Amtrak crash that killed eight people in May 2015 is that its cause is still mostly a mystery.

As Matthew Shaer reports in a thorough, long article for the New York Times Magazine, when Amtrak 188 derailed in Philadelphia on May 12, the engineer, Brandon Bostian, had no alcohol or drugs in his system; he wasn't looking at his phone; and he was, by all accounts, totally devoted to his job.

Shaer, after talking to rail officials, comes up with two theories to explain why Bostian lost control of the train, entering a dangerous curve at 106 miles per hour:

  1. The train's locomotive was hit by a rock. This wasn't an uncommon occurrence on this stretch of track, and happened to other trains that night. Bostian could have hit his head ducking to avoid it, causing him to briefly lose his bearings while the train was accelerating. Bostian had an injury to his forehead, and the train had a dent in its windshield that could have been caused by a projectile.
  2. Bostian confused Frankford Junction, the sharp curve where the train derailed, with the curve before it, the way a driver might become confused on a dark highway. He was on his second trip of the day and, due to mechanical problems on his earlier trip, had almost no break between the two.

The article, which is worth reading in full, suggests other contributing factors but concludes that the ultimate cause of the crash is still uncertain. A report expected later today from the National Transportation Safety Board might offer more definitive answers.

Go deeper:

  • The Amtrak crash was totally preventable through a technology known as positive train control, now in place on most of the Northeast Corridor.
  • A survivor argues that Amtrak's response to the passengers was disastrous.