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Amtrak engine that derailed included new crash safety engineering

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Posted at 9:30 AM, May 14, 2015
and last updated 2015-05-14 09:30:36-04

The train that derailed Tuesday night near Philadelphia, killing seven and injuring more than 200, included a recently debuted Amtrak locomotive with an advanced crash safety design, an Amtrak spokeswoman confirmed Wednesday.

The Cities Sprinter train engines, which first entered service in the northeast corridor last year, were engineered with a relatively new safety technology known as crash energy management. The tech aims to redistribute the brunt of an impact away from people inside trains, ideally lessening injuries in a collision.

The new engines also have other improvements, such as braking systems that can put energy back into the power grid.

An Amtrak spokeswoman confirmed the engine that derailed was one of the new Cities Sprinter models, but declined to discuss safety features of the trains or the engine number.

In a photo published by the ABC affiliate in Philadelphia, the locomotive appears to be labeled as No. 601 — the same engine that was used to promote Cities Sprinter engines during the lead up to their inaugural use.

Though the engine — which operates at the front of the train — was new, the passenger cars were likely part of an older fleet built in the 1970s, said Dan Schned, a senior planner at the New York-area Regional Plan Association and manager of theNortheast Alliance for Rail.

“There might’ve been some upgrades, but I do know those Amfleet cars are up to 40 years old and have up to millions of miles on them, on average,” Schned said.

But new train cars are expensive, and Amtrak is slated to take about $250 million in budget cuts next year. The House Appropriations Committee voted to approve the cuts as part of a larger bill Wednesday, just hours after the crash.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the crash, said the train was traveling at least 100 mph before it derailed. The Associated Pressestimated it was traveling 107 mph on a curve where the speed limit is 50 mph.

Tuesday’s crash was the first major accident involving Amtrak in the Northeastern United States since the locomotives debuted in February 2014.

But crash energy management has been used in the design of at least one train that has derailed in the past.

In February, the collision between a Metrolink commuter train and a truck parked on the rails in Oxnard, Calif., killed only one person: the train’s engineer (the truck’s driver was not inside his vehicle). At the time, a Metrolink board member said the crash energy management design — which Metrolink included on its passenger cars — “saved lives and lessened injuries.”

The federal government, in partnership with the railroad industry, has been researching crash energy management for years. A working group in 2005 paired major rail companies, such as Amtrak, with government researchers, and their results helped set a path toward including the technology in Amtrak’s new engines.

The working group, however, only tested trains that crashed into a stationary object or another locomotive — not those that derailed on their own at a high rate of speed.

Reach SHFWire reporter Sean McMinn at sean.mcminn@scripps.com or 202-408-1488. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter​.​