2 reported dead as Amtrak train derailment halts US northeast rail travel

A May 13, 2015, file photo showing a monitor displaying cancelled trains at Union Station in Washington, DC.
A May 13, 2015, file photo showing a monitor displaying cancelled trains at Union Station in Washington, DC. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Train service along a stretch of the US northeast ground to a halt early Sunday (April 3) following a derailment near Philadelphia that local news reports said left two people dead and dozens injured.

US railway service Amtrak said in a statement that the train, the Palmetto, was en route from New York to Savannah, Georgia when it struck a backhoe on the tracks south of Philadelphia.

The front windows of the train, which was carrying nearly 350 passengers and crew, were smashed in the incident, which took place in the town of Chester, Pennsylvania shortly before 8am local time.

The two dead were railroad construction workers, media reports and officials said.

"Northeast Corridor service between New York and Philadelphia is suspended," read an Amtrak statement. Train services along a 50km stretch from Philadelphia south to Wilmington, Delaware was suspended, said Amtrak officials.

Philadelphia ABC News affiliate WPVI said it had confirmed two deaths in the crash. Amtrak did not immediately provide details of the two dead.

Mr Travis Thomas, fire commissioner for Chester, said that 35 people received hospital treatment for “non-life-threatening” injuries.  “People are being re-routed back to Philadelphia to be reunited with their luggage,” he added.  

The accident caused the lead engine to derail on the train.

"Initial reports are that some passengers are being treated for injuries," Amtrak said.

"Local emergency responders are on the scene and an investigation is ongoing," it added.

A 15-year-old passenger told reporters how the journey was going as planned until suddenly the train stopped almost dead and the car was filled with dust.  

“We were on the train and everything was going smoothly. Then the train was, like, rumbling. We got off track I guess. There was a bunch of dust. There was dust everywhere. The train conductors were running to the front,” he said.  “We got off track and then were was a big explosion, then there was a fire. Then the windows burst out. Some people were cut up – but they were just minor injuries – and then people started running.”

The boy’s mother Monica Holmes had dropped him off a half hour before the accident and sped back to the station when he called to tell her that there had been an accident.  

“He called and told me, ‘Mom, someone was killed on the train. It was a construction worker.’ My heart just dropped,” she said.  “I’m just thanking God that he’s okay, and I pray for the other families that suffered the loss. I can’t imagine it.”

In a statement, Amtrak said that Palmetto train 89 struck a backhoe that was on the track, derailing the lead engine.  

Rescuers rushed to the scene and Amtrak launched an emergency hotline for people worried about their loved ones.  

An Amtrak spokesman, Mr Stephen Gardner, told reporters that officials from the National Transportation Safety Board were en route to the scene to launch an investigation.  

Passenger Glenn Hills, who was in the second passenger car, described how the train had appeared to plow through debris on the track before slamming into the backhoe.

“I looked outside and it looked like we were in this brown cloud. We were rolling into this storm, this sandstorm,” he told CNN.  “People are yelling at that point. There was a woman screaming a prayer. (Then) there was tremendous impact on the first car.”

“It feels like a nightmare,” he added.