Let’s all just wait until the investigation is over before we place any blame for that recent Amtrak fatal accident.

   I’ve ridden that train many times. More importantly, my husband, a seasoned, experienced railroad engineer until his retirement 23 years ago, ran that route dozens of times. The New York to Washington run was a prime job for veteran engineers.

   In all these early reports, they’re not mentioning the engineer; my prayers for him and his family, for surely, he did not make it.

   But think of it.   A couple of hundred people on the train, a single engine…..a single engineer in that engine. The guy can’t even leave his post to go to the bathroom. No fireman any more; the railroad began to think of them as useless, unnecessary, so they eliminated them at a great cost savings. Monetary savings, yes, but given those years as a fireman also gave that railroader a few years experience in the engine before he took control. But they haven’t shoveled coal since the 1950s, at least on NJ Transit…Amtrak wasn’t even around….so perhaps the name ‘fireman’ is obsolete. But the position shouldn’t be.

   The train could be barreling along at perhaps 80 miles an hour at that particular spot. If the engineer had a heart attack, the ‘dead man’ would take control and automatically stop the train. But if it happened just before that curve they’re all talking about, would it be able to stop the train in time? Without de-railing?


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   Perhaps there was something on the tracks….a junked refrigerator. Or worse, a junked refrigerator loaded with rocks. Kids have been known to do that, you know. It’s a game to see what will happen. My own kids were taught never to put so much as a penny on the tracks to see how a train could crush it to itsy bitsy thinness. They were told that under precise conditions, even that thin penny could cause a derailment.

   Perhaps there was a drunk who wandered across the tracks. The engineer could have instinctively braked to avoid him, even though he well knew that it would take more than a mile to bring that train to a halt. Still, the engineer in the cab looking out ahead and seeing a human in his path instinctively tries to act.

   Perhaps it was a teenager, high on drugs, who thought he could ‘beat’ the train as he tried to get from one side to the other. He learned the hard way he couldn’t. Even the most astute, aware, alert engineer couldn’t prevent that kind of accident.

   That happened to my husband; not on this side of 30th Street station, but just south of it. A teen ager high on drugs not only tried to beat the train, but took the time to stop in the middle of the tracks, and thumb his nose at the engineer. It was the last vision by husband had before he felt and heard the crunch of a young body as it met the front of the engine going at a high rate of speed.

   That was a long time ago, and thankfully, the railroad has changed its policies since then. Now, if an engineer has a fatal accident, another engineer is called out to finish the run. The affected engineer can take a couple of days off to re-coup and deal with the mental anguish. That wasn’t the way it was 35 years ago. Then, the engineer got off the train, assessed the scene, the conductor radioed the railroad…..and the engineer received instructions to clean off the front of the engine so as not to upset any waiting passengers as the train rolled into 30th Street station. After the hour or so investigation, the engineer then boarded his engine again and continued his trip, still alone in the cab, into New York. Then reported to work again the next day.

They’re the things you remember. And that’s why I hope they do a thorough investigation before blaming the engineer.

Muriel Smith

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Muriel J. Smith

Muriel J Smith

Muriel J Smith an award-winning journalist, former newspaper editor, book author and historian, Her newest venture is her blog, www.venividiscripto.com in...