As I See It

Verdict for Amtrak engineer is victory for workers

By Chris Hoeppner
March 21, 2022

PHILADELPHIA — It took less than 90 minutes March 4 for a Philadelphia jury to find Brandon Bostian, the engineer during the 2015 Amtrak derailment where eight people died and more than 200 were injured, not guilty of all charges brought against him.

Amtrak had previously agreed to pay $265 million to settle claims filed by victims and their families.

The district attorney’s office in Philadelphia had declined to prosecute Bostian for the deadly accident. But Democratic Pennsylvania Attorney General Joshua Shapiro filed over 200 charges against the rail worker. The case had been dismissed twice.

In September 2017 Judge Thomas Gehret ruled Bostian had no criminal responsibility for the derailment, which, he said, appeared to be an accident. That didn’t stop the state, which filed the same case in a different court. But in 2019 Judge Barbara McDermott made the same ruling, saying, “The law recognizes we’re all human.”

Shapiro appealed, and the case was sent to this third trial. Bostian’s attorney, Brian McMonagle, said the former engineer had lived through seven years wondering whether he would ever get his life back. “Today this jury gave him his future back,” McMonagle said after the verdict.

As a conductor on a freight railroad out of Philadelphia, I applaud the verdict. Brother Bostian had guts to refuse to break and accept the plea deal they made to him on charges of involuntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment and of causing a catastrophe. If he had been convicted he would have faced years in prison. Even when innocent, many workers take a plea “bargain” when faced with draconian sentences.

Bostian’s acquittal is a victory for rail workers, our unions and all workers.

The derailment happened after Bostian was alarmed and distracted by reports over his train radio that a nearby SEPTA commuter train made an emergency stop after it was struck by rocks, shattering the windshield. That SEPTA engineer testified about that at Bostian’s trial this week, as did a passenger on an Amtrak Acela train going in the opposite direction, who said a projectile struck his window moments before Bostian’s train went careening off the rails.

The National Transportation Safety Board investigated the derailment and concluded Bostian lost what they call “situational awareness.” Thinking he was on a long straightaway, the engineer accelerated, when the train was actually approaching a sharp curve.

An expert on train accidents testified for the defense and described several other crashes where investigators reached similar conclusions. The prosecution pressed its case, arguing Bostian was trained for just such situations as rocks being thrown at the engine.

Rail bosses, Congress cut safety

The prosecuting attorney from the attorney general’s office tried to paint Bostian as a villain, while disregarding the contempt for safety shown repeatedly by Amtrak and Congress. Amtrak bosses cut engine crew size over years. Today there is only one worker on the engine for much of the time, such as in the Washington,  D.C., to New York City run, and if anything happens to him no one else can step in.

At the time of the 2015 crash, Dennis Pierce, president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, and John Previsich, president of the SMART Transportation Division, pointed out in a joint statement, “Safe transportation service demand[s] a crew of at least two fully trained and qualified employees in the control cab of every train.” This is as relevant today as ever.

Amtrak, like almost all major freight railroads, fought to delay installing Positive Train Control, a braking safety device that automatically slows or stops trains that exceed speed limits. At their urging, Congress continually put off deadlines for them to do so.

At the time of the crash, these protections were not installed on the track Bostian was on. They were deployed only after the deaths from this derailment made it politically impossible to avoid doing so any longer. The bosses consider safety just another cost.

Currently freight railroads include an engineer and conductor in the cab of most trains. While Positive Train Control can help ensure safer operation, it can’t replace two crew members. Many rail workers have no set schedule of hours, work on call 24/7, and work 12-hour shifts or more. These schedules wreak havoc on rail workers’ families. Fatigue is a major challenge.

The freight bosses are trying to eliminate the conductor. The jury verdict in Philadelphia shows that safety on the rails can’t be left to the rail bosses and their backers in Congress. Two crew members in the cab of a passenger train at all times are no less necessary than on a freight train.

As I’m writing this article I hear on the news that a freight train with 20 coal cars has derailed just north of Baltimore, shutting down Amtrak from Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia. Rail workers need to use our unions to fight to take control over the working conditions we face. This is the only way to ensure safer conditions on the job, for rail passengers, and for the communities we travel through.