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NTSB Continues Investigation Into Derailed Amtrak Train


Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter is expressing today the shock many are feeling.


MAYOR MICHAEL NUTTER: We've suffered a tragedy here in our city. Seven people have died as a result of a train derailment, which is a very unusual event. I don't believe that anyone standing here today has any memory of a derailment of this kind in 50 years.

CORNISH: The mayor spoke this afternoon near the mangled train that derailed last night in Philadelphia. It was Amtrak's Northeast Regional number 188 going from Washington to New York. More than 200 passengers were taken to hospitals, and as the mayor said, seven people were killed. Now, for the latest on the investigation and the broader effects of the derailment on the system, we turn to NPR's transportation correspondent David Schaper. And, David, tell us what's the latest in the investigation.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Well, the primary focus of the investigation, Audie, appears to be speed. National Transportation Safety board member Robert Sumwalt said in a briefing leaked this afternoon that as the train approached the curve where it derailed, it was speeding at 106 miles an hour. The engineer hit the emergency brakes, but it was just seconds later with the train still going over 100 miles an hour that the train derailed, resulting in that horrific scene of twisted and tangled metal. The speed limit for the straight-away stretch of track before that curve, Sumwalt says, was 70 miles an hour. And in the curve, the speed limit drops to 50 miles an hour. Sumwalt says it's still not clear why the train was traveling so fast, but he did say that this particular section of Amtrak's Northeast Corridor does not yet have a system called positive train control, which would have been able to override the engineer and automatically slow the train to the proper speed limit depending on the track requirements.


ROBERT SUMWALT: We are very keen on positive train control. Based on what we know right now, we feel that had such a system been installed in this section of track, this accident would not have occurred.

SCHAPER: Now, Sumwalt says the NTSB investigative team will remain on the scene for about a week. They will continue to examine the condition of the track and the train wreckage itself looking for possible mechanical or breaking problems. And the investigation itself could continue for months or even a year or more before a final determination is made for the probable cause of this derailment. In the meantime, authorities say this is still an active accident and recovery scene. There are several cars that are being removed, but two remain as officials are still looking for a couple of passengers who remain unaccounted for.

CORNISH: David, tell us more about the route itself, the Northeast Corridor, and where it fits into the broader transportation system.

SCHAPER: Well, it's huge. It's a vital transportation link between the cities of Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston. It's by far the busiest corridor in the Amtrak system, serving well over 11 million passengers a year. And it is one of the strongest passenger rail markets in the world. Joe Szabo, who served as the Federal Railroad Administrator from 2009 until earlier this year, gives us some perspective of just how important this rail line is in moving people within the densely-populated Northeast.

JOE SZABO: Amtrak dominates the air rail market between New York City and Washington D.C. with roughly 80 percent of all passengers taking rail; the remaining 20 percent of passengers are shared amongst all the airlines.

CORNISH: So given what we've just heard there, David, what does that mean for commuters in the region?

SCHAPER: Well, Amtrak service between Washington and New York is now being suspended and out of service for at least the next week or so. So that means thousands of travelers will be turning to buses, to airlines and getting into their cars. That could further slowdown traffic at the airports and on the highways, such as that gridlocked I-95 corridor. Regional commuter rail around Philadelphia, into and out of the New Jersey area and up to New York also might be affected by this. You know, it's a really heavily congested region already, and for the next week or so, it appears that it's likely to be getting a little bit worse.

CORNISH: That's NPR's transportation correspondent David Schaper. David, thanks so much.

SCHAPER: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.