By Ian Simpson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The engineer involved in a deadly Amtrak passenger train crash in 2015 that killed eight passengers in Philadelphia was distracted by radio traffic, U.S. safety officials said on Tuesday.
The engineer of Amtrak Train 188, Brandon Bostian, sped up into a curve at more than twice the recommended speed, which could have been prevented if the track had been fitted with positive train control, a safety system, the findings of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said.
NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart said that Bostian had lost track of where the train was before the crash that killed eight passengers and sent 186 to hospitals.
"We will delve into the most complicated and unpredictable part of the transportation system - the human being," he told a hearing.
The New York-bound Amtrak train derailed at Frankford Junction Curve about 11 minutes after leaving Philadelphia's 30th Street Station. Some of the passengers were thrown from the train when windows came loose, investigators found.
As the train headed north, Bostian was distracted by radio traffic about a commuter train on an adjacent track that had been hit by a thrown rock, the report said.
Bostian was monitoring the two dozen calls made between the commuter train and the rail dispatcher over six minutes. He sped up to full throttle for about 40 seconds, reaching 106 miles per hour (170 km per hour) on a stretch where the speed limit was 50 mph (80 kph).
Investigators said that Bostian may have thought he was already on a higher-speed stretch following Frankford Junction. The crash occurred at night, and he lacked visual clues about where he and the train were.
Bostian suffered a concussion in the accident. Stephen Jenner, an NTSB human performance investigator, said at the hearing that Bostian had no recollection of what happened before the accident, including his acceleration of the train.
Amtrak had no immediate comment on the NTSB's findings.
Since the accident, the NTSB has installed positive train control on the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston except for 56 miles (90 km) that are owned by the states of New York and Connecticut, Hart said.
Including the Philadelphia crash, 37 people have died in Amtrak accidents since 2008 that could have had been prevented by positive train control, he said.
After a 2008 crash at Chatsworth, California, Congress gave railroads until the end of 2015 to implement positive train control, then extended the deadline to 2018.
(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Andrew Hay)