Friday, May 15, 2015

How To Reconstruct A Train Wreck

By Ralph Cipriano

When there's a catastrophe like a train derailment, guys like Steven M. Schorr get paid to reconstruct what happened.

Schorr, a licensed professional engineer from Abington, is the guy who goes to an accident scene packing a high-definition laser scanner to map all the debris.

It doesn't matter whether engineers like Schorr are investigating a plane crash, a multi-vehicle car accident, or a train derailment, the methodology is the same.

"The reconstruction of a collision is an application of the laws of physics to the physical evidence left as result of a collision," Schorr said.

To that end, the job of the National Transportation Safety Board is to not make any judgments right away,  Schorr said, but rather to "collect the physical evidence." That's why NTSB member Robert Sumwalt recently bopped Mayor Nutter for his declaration that the "idiot" engineer of the Amtrak train was at fault because he was allegedly doing 106 mph on a curve with a speed limit of 50.

"You're not going to hear the NTSB making comments like that," Sumwalt said right after Nutter's announcement. "We want to get the facts before we start making judgments."

And right now, the NTSB is collecting evidence.

They want to map "where everything ends up," Schorr said. "The points of rest of the train pieces, the location of the debris path." The spots along the accent route where occupants were ejected, as well as all the damage done to the train. All that physical evidence can sometimes be used to make a 3D animation to recreate the accident, Schorr said.

"Once you figure out how the accident happened, you can then attempt to figure out why it happened," Schorr said.

Besides analyzing the data, the NTSB has to analyze the train's so called "black box" to make sure the data collected was recorded properly.

There are three factors in any railroad collision, Schorr said. There's the driver and whether his input or lack of input was a factor in the collision. There's the train and whether it had any mechanical issues that contributed to the event. And there is the layout and the condition of the railroad tracks and surrounding environment.

While the NTSB is still conducting its investigation, "Nobody should be jumping to conclusions," Schorr said. "Even if it quacks like a duck and has feathers like a duck, you've got to do your analysis and make sure it's a duck."

One thing that is different about analyzing a train accident vs. an auto accident, Schorr said, is that "trains take a significantly longer period of time to decelerate."

We're talking steel wheels on steel tracks as compared to rubber tires on an asphalt roadway, Schorr said. A truck can take 150 feet to stop at a particular speed. A train can take 750 feet to stop at that same speed.

Schorr's tool of the trade is a high-definition laser scanner that allows him to "collect data in three dimensions," he said. The scanner produces a "3D model of whatever it scans," Schorr said. The price of a high-definition laser scanner can run from $65,000 for a hand-held terrestrial [land-based] machine up to $1 million for a mobile high-definition laser scanner that can be mounted to a car.

Schorr gets hired to reconstruct accidents by government agencies, plaintiffs and defendants. But sometimes he gets hired before any catastrophe takes place. For example, in 2013, the National Parks Service retained CyArk [a nonprofit historical preservation group based in California] and Schorr's firm, DJS Associates of Abington, to create a 3D model of the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.

If there are any future problems at either monument that require reconstruction, Schorr said, the Parks Service will have a three-dimensional blueprint of the interior and exterior of both monuments.

While Mayor Nutter has already pronounced the Amtrak engineer guilty, people wonder whether the Amtrak engineer will face criminal charges.

First, the NTSB has to complete its investigation and release its findings before a prosecutor can seek an indictment.

"However, just as we see in vehicular manslaughter/homicide cases, in order for the engineer to be prosecuted, there must be a high degree of recklessness in his driving such as excessive speed," said Heidi Villari, a lawyer at The Beasley Firm who specializes in catastrophic injury cases. Criminal charges may be filed "particularly if drugs or alcohol are found to be in the engineer's system," she said.

In Pennsylvania, a person is "guilty of involuntary manslaughter when as a direct result of the doing of an unlawful act in a reckless or grossly negligent manner, or the doing of a lawful act in a  reckless or grossly negligent manner, he causes the death of another person."

Involuntary manslaughter is a misdemeanor of the first-degree punishable by a mandatory sentence of five years in jail and/or a $10,000 fine. A second-degree manslaughter charge results when the victim is udder 12 years of age and is "in the care, custody or control of the person who caused the death."

Second-degree involuntary manslaughter is punishable by a mandatory sentence of two years in jail and/or a $5,000 fine.

When the Amtrak train derailed in Philadelphia Tuesday night, killing eight and sending 150 to the hospital, the train jumped the Northeast Corridor tracks and skidded about 100 yards before crashing into Conrail's Frankford Junction Yard.

The Frankford yard is frequented by tank cars that carry crude oil, ethanol and other explosive liquids, prompting media speculation that the accident could have been far worse. However, there's been a standing order in that freight yard for at least 10 years to not have any freight cars with hazardous cargo parked on the tracks adjacent to the Northeast Corridor tracks, said a railroad source familiar with the area.

"It's the best maintained railroad track in the country," said the source, who claimed the derailment was not a problem with infrastructure being maintained improperly. The tracks are inspected daily and maintained to the "highest possible federal standards," the source said.

An NTSB spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.