DUPONT, WASHINGTON (December 19 , 2017) – The NTSB has released a preliminary statement on Monday’s derailment of an Amtrak passenger train that was responsible for at least 3 deaths and over 70 injuries, according to an article by NPR. (map)
The crash happened around 7:40 am on Monday. The inaugural voyage of a brand new high speed train system connecting Seattle and Portland had just begun. The new line was intended to shave at least 10 minutes off of a long commute for passengers, taking a more inland route instead of one along the coast. Instead of building a new track, the Point Defiance Bypass was created by overhauling existing freight train lines to be able to handle high speed passenger trains. The Federal Railroad Administration funded and reviewed the upgrades, which were done to tracks owned by the Sound Transit Agency.
On Monday, Amtrak 501 approached a curve near DuPont, WA. The train was supposed to take the curve at no more than 30 mph. Instead, according to data recovered from the rear locomotive’s Event Data Recorder… the train hit the curve at 80 mph. The lead locomotive and 13 of the 14 cars on the train derailed as the train hit an overpass over the southbound side of the 5 Freeway. The derailment was so severe, the lead locomotive and two train cars dropped off the tracks entirely and onto the freeway, leaving two cars dangling precariously over Interstate 5. Others slid off the tracks and into the nearby woods. Several cars and semi trucks on the freeway were mangled by the falling train cars, some almost crushed beyond recognition.
Three people so far have been confirmed to have been killed in the accident. Dozens more were injured, including ten that sustained serious injuries. None of the involved motorists in vehicles on the freeway were killed, and initial reports indicate the three people killed were inside the train cars that slid into the forest. The emergency doors ceased to function on at least some of the cars, and victims were forced to kick out windows just to escape the train.
The train was running 30 minutes late at the time of the accident, and one of the things the NTSB will be looking into was whether or not the engineer was aware of the speed limit in the area. They are also checking to see if a Positive Train Control was installed on the tracks. A PTC is a system that is designed to automatically slow or stop a train in certain dangerous conditions, including when it is approaching a curve too fast. All passenger tracks are federally required to have a PTC system installed by the end of 2018, but it is unknown at this time whether the $181 million dollar budget spent on refitting the Point Defiance Bypass system included the installation of a PTC.
The installation of a PTC was initially included in the NTSB’s “Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements” in 1990. It wasn’t until 2008’s deadly crash of a Union Pacific Freight Train and a Metrolink passenger train that a bill passed in Congress to make the installation of a PTC mandatory. The deadline was originally 2015, but it was extended to 2018.
Mayor Don Anderson of Lakewood, a suburb of Tacoma, had already expressed serious misgivings about the safety of the new line. Anderson’s fears were mostly centered around pedestrians and crossings, but he had concerns about the overall safety of the project. And just last month, the NTSB issued a report stating that Amtrak had a “deficient” safety culture. A statement from the NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt said “Amtrak’s safety culture is failing and is primed to fail again, until and unless Amtrak changes the way it practices safety management.”
Monday’s terrible tragedy is the second worst accident in Amtrak history. In 2015, an Amtrak train traveling at 106 mph in Philadelphia approached a curve with a maximum safe speed of 50 mph. The conductor applied the emergency brake abruptly, bringing the train down to 102 mph as it derailed. The entire train left the track, leaving 8 dead and over 200 injured. The NTSB’s report concluded that the engineer had become distracted, leading to the speed of the train. A PTC had been installed on the tracks, but was not operational, and the NTSB has said that the presence of PTC would have prevented the tragedy.
The investigation into the derailment of Amtrak 501 is just beginning. The NTSB will conduct an exhaustive inquiry into what caused the train to derail, why the train did not automatically slow down, and if any of the tragic deaths were preventable.