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Safety Is The First Responsibility, Former Railroad Engineer Says


Let's hear what the world looks like from the seat of a train engineer. We're doing that in the aftermath of Tuesday's Amtrak crash in Philadelphia. Investigators say the train was moving at more than 100 miles per hour while heading into a curve where the maximum speed was 50. Just before it derailed, the emergency brake was applied. Yesterday, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter on CNN put the blame on the engineer.


MAYOR MICHAEL NUTTER: Clearly, he was reckless and irresponsible in his actions. I don't know what was going on with him. I don't know what was going on in the cab. But there's really no excuse.

INSKEEP: That's the mayor's view, although it is still early. Transportation investigators have yet to blame either the engineer or a mechanical failure. To learn what the engineer's job is like, we called Doug Riddell. He's a former locomotive engineer from Ashland, Va. He's retired now. He spent 36 years on the tracks. Riddell would not comment on the specifics of this accident, but he was adamant about one thing.

DOUG RIDDELL: The first responsibility of any railroader is safety.

INSKEEP: And he described the numerous checks an engineer is supposed to do at the start of every trip.

RIDDELL: When you begin moving and before you get to 20 miles an hour, you have to check your breaks. And you have to certify that they are working. You also have to - at the first milepost, you take out your watch. And you verify the accuracy of your speedometer.

INSKEEP: Speedometer, just like you'd have in a car. In fact, the controls in the cab are a lot like those at the driver's seat of a car.

RIDDELL: The engineer manually manipulates the throttle, which allows the train to move fast. And he operates the break, which allows the train to slow down. And you have a little small display inside of the locomotive cab that tells you the condition of the track ahead.

INSKEEP: And the engineer is not the only one making sure things run as they should.

RIDDELL: It's at the point now where the technology exists that an official can be sitting in his office. He can look at your control console, and he can see in real time exactly how fast you're going, what throttle position you're in. There's very little these days that's left up to chance.

INSKEEP: And yet, things can still go wrong, as something did on Tuesday night. Doug Riddell says being a locomotive engineer is a harder job than many people realize. There's a lot to think about all at once.

RIDDELL: You have to know your railroad. You try to remember, hey, I've got a 50 mile an hour speed restriction coming up. I'm running on an approach signal. There's so many things that you have to do.

INSKEEP: Even as Tuesday's crash is on many people's minds, Riddell wanted us to know that he is not planning to change the way that he travels.

RIDDELL: I get on the train. I ride them regularly because I know the people that are running the train. I've sat in their seats. I've put my hand on the same throttle that they've held. I trust them with my life just as people have trusted me with theirs.

INSKEEP: That's Doug Riddell of Ashland, Va., a retired train engineer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.