Was the Washington Amtrak Derailment Preventable?

Early Monday morning, an Amtrak train in the middle of its first-ever run on a new line of high-speed service between Seattle, Washington, and Portland, Oregon, derailed at a location about 40 miles south of Seattle. The train derailed as the train was crossing an overpass over Interstate 5, one of the busiest highways on the West Coast. In all, Washington State Police confirmed that three people were killed and another 100 were transported to local hospitals with injuries, many of them listed as critical. All of the crew members on the train were among those 100.

The Investigation Begins

All 13 train cars from Amtrak Cascades train 501 jumped the track, which means the crash left the 65-ton passenger rail cars scattered all over, including several that landed on the highway below and one that ended up under the bridge it was supposed to cross. At least five vehicles that were passing under the bridge at the time were heavily damaged by the rail cars, including two 18-wheelers.

Late Monday morning, investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) arrived on the scene. Later that same day, the agency announced they had found the event data recorder aboard the train. While there is no official cause of the crash, according to preliminary data, the train was traveling at 80 mph at the time it derailed, in an area where trains are supposed to reduce their speed to 30 mph, according to Sound Transit, which owns the tracks.

On Tuesday, the NTSB revealed that a conductor who was in training, “getting experience and familiarizing himself with the territory” was in the cab with the train’s engineer at the time of the crash, while the actual conductor was in the passenger area of the train. That has raised concerns about distraction, which is currently one of NTSB’s main priorities when it comes to trains these days. They also noted that the brakes were not engaged by the engineer, but rather by automatic processes.

Following Proper Safety Procedures

Amtrak obviously planned to take safety seriously, as testing on the new Seattle to Portland route actually began in January of this year, and non-revenue test runs had crews operating the trains multiple times for at least two weeks before Monday’s launch and subsequent crash. The engineer who was driving the train Monday had already operated the train on the new route as part of his qualification to drive, but so far, the NTSB is unaware of how many times he had done so.

The train that crashed was scheduled to be equipped with Positive Train Control (PTC), which is a technology capable of slowing or stopping the train when it is going too fast, but it had not yet been installed on the Amtrak Cascades train. The NTSB has been recommending that all trains be equipped with the technology, but Congress first established a deadline for 2015 and then extended that, giving train companies until the end of 2018 to implement the systems. The NTSB has said their investigation will determine whether or not PTC would have prevented the crash.

Prior Warnings About the Route

One other interesting wrinkle that will have to be addressed during the NTSB investigation will have to consider is that, according to court records, the mayor of at least one city along the train’s route expressed concerns about the line back in 2013. Don Anderson, who is the mayor of Lakewood, Washington, which is located about 11 miles northeast of the crash site, said it could have been avoided “if better choices had been made” with regard to upgrading passenger service along that route, which was designed to shave a total of ten minutes off the commute between Seattle and Portland.

Mayor Anderson repeated his safety concerns about the rail line during a town meeting earlier this month when he said it was just a matter of time before the high-speed trains killed someone. He also suggested a number safety improvements and told planners to “come back when there is that accident.” He noted that the project was unnecessary and endangers everyone.

What NTSB Will Look For

There will be a lot for the NTSB to consider during its investigation. It is perhaps troubling that the Amtrak train was on its first run on a 14.5-mile bypass, on tracks that had been part of a $181 million upgrade. The project was part of an expansion of Amtrak intercity passenger rail service that includes station upgrades and expansions and the addition of new locomotives. The money came out of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and was part of money set aside for high-speed rail initiatives.

In particular, the Cascades High-Speed Rail Capital Program between Seattle and Portland received hundreds of millions of dollars to improve train speeds between the two cities. Part of that effort included the Point Defiance Bypass Project, which is where this derailment occurred, just days after state officials celebrated the opening of the Tacoma station along the rebuilt route with a ribbon cutting. That happened on Friday, just three days before the accident.

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