When Amtrak 188 derailed in Philadelphia on May 12, killing eight passengers and injuring more than 200, Al Jazeera America quickly assembled exclusive material to be the first to report that the train was traveling too fast on the track, with exclusive data visualizations that showed not only the speed of the train before it crashed but how it compared to hundreds of other trips on the same route.
Those reports were configured from downloads of Amtrak data showing the location of every train in the country every five minutes for nearly 18 months.
Because of that nearly year-and-a-half of data, when the crash happened we were able to reconstruct the 188’s journey and the first to report that it was traveling over twice the speed limit prior to its crash: 106 mph. In addition, we processed over 20GB of trip data — hundreds of thousands of recorded data points — to come out with a next-day analysis showing how 188’s speed compared with previous trips on that same stretch of track. We found that it was an outlier and that almost every other train went the speed limit or a few miles per hour above.
We also were first to report how a potentially life-saving technology, Positive Train Control (PTC), was not installed on the track where 188 derailed, even though the technology was supposed to be implemented by 2013. While Amtrak wasn’t returning calls, our reporter dug through old issues of Amtrak Ink, the company newsletter, to find the latest information on PTC’s installation and discovered that it had been delayed on the track segment in question. To better illustrate what PTC does, we also put together a visual explainer that walks readers through the system. We were able to publish our stories that same afternoon.
We complemented this breaking coverage with commentary that gave context to this incident by examining Amtrak finances and its funding history as well as showing data on ridership and funding in recent years. The piece argued that an accident like this was bound to happen due to structural reasons in how Amtrak has been set up: it was established as a for-profit company — and all of the financial expectations that come along with that designation — despite the fact that many of its routes are not money making.
No one expects other forms of transportation infrastructure in the same way, such as roads for example, even though they have a similar purpose of promoting interstate commerce and travel. The piece also showed the hypocrisy of expecting a national rail system — part of the nation’s basic transportation infrastructure — to be successful and functional all while depriving it of the subsidies that make its European counterparts so impressive.
In a major breaking news events we supplied what all media consumers should have: in-depth and exclusive information done on deadline, with follow-up and context to follow.