This week I learned that railroad barons still have power: they have successfully resisted safety measures that have for decades been standard for airlines and other transportation. I also learned that, by focusing on the wrong questions, federal safety agencies help keep railroads unsafe.
After a year of careful study, the National Transportation Safety Board announced that the likely cause of the Amtrak 188 derailment in May 2015 that killed eight people and injured over 100 more was the engineer. The Board noted repeatedly that, had Amtrak turned on a safety system it had already installed, there would have been no accident at all. Nonetheless, the NTSB just couldn’t bring itself to blame Amtrak – even though the railroad has itself already admitted legal liability and agreed to pay compensation for damages. The NTSB spent most of its meeting talking about the engineer, Brandon Bostian, saying that he'd lost track of where he was and was speeding up when he should have been slowing down. They noted that Bostian hadn’t been drinking or talking on his cell, hadn’t been sleep deprived, hadn’t taken drugs and had a record of good behavior. They concluded that he was likely distracted by listening to radio reports about another train incident nearby. Faced with the fact that he’d made a mistake, but hadn’t done anything obviously wrong, they nonetheless continued to focus on him. They ended up recommending new training courses for engineers in multitasking (even though there’s plenty of evidence that such courses are ineffective).