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Amtrak Train Traveled at 80 M.P.H., Far Over 30-M.P.H. Limit, Before Derailment

December 19th, 2017Posted By: Megan Contributor: The New York Times

Amtrak Company Logo Header for article concerning a recent train derailment

Amtrak Train Derailment

DUPONT, Wash. — The revelation that a passenger train was speeding 50 miles per hour over the speed limit at the time of a fatal crash near Tacoma, Wash., has once again focused attention on Amtrak’s safety culture, the role of human error in rail accidents, and the need for technology that automatically slows trains that are going too fast.

Late Monday night, National Transportation Safety Board officials said that the train, bound from Seattle to Portland, Ore., was traveling at 80 miles per hour, on a curve with a limit of 30 miles per hour, when it jumped the tracks and careened into a busy highway and a stand of evergreens. At least three people were killed and about 100 were injured, officials said regarding the Amtrak Train Derailment.

The accident mirrored Amtrak’s worst disaster in recent years, in 2015, when a train derailed at more than 100 miles per hour in Philadelphia, on a curve posted at 50 miles per hour, killing eight people.

Train 501, carrying 77 passengers and seven crew members, derailed Monday morning, between Tacoma and Olympia, on the inaugural run of a new route for Amtrak’s Cascades service, where the tracks curve onto an overpass crossing Interstate 5. It was not clear how familiar the engineer was with that stretch of track, or whether that played a role in the crash.

Two of the people killed, Zack Willhoite and James Hamre, were close friends and rail enthusiasts, traveling together on the train’s inaugural voyage. Mr. Hamre, a retired engineer, was a volunteer for All Aboard Washington, a rail advocacy organization; Mr. Willhoite worked as a customer support specialist for Pierce Transit, a local transit agency.

“It was just a given that they would be there,” said Lloyd Flem, a friend of the victims and the executive director of All Aboard Washington. “They had wanted to be on that very, very first run.”

In an interview on Tuesday, Mr. Flem said that when he saw both men just a few days ago and they were eager to board the train early Monday morning.

On Tuesday morning, the scene of the crash, surrounded by police and emergency vehicles, began to look more like a construction site than a disaster. In a heavy drizzle, huge cranes were brought in to lift the wrecked pieces of the train, while the crumpled remains of cars and trucks were loaded onto tractor-trailers to be taken away.

Just last month, the N.T.S.B. reported that Amtrak had a “weak safety culture”. That conclusion stemmed from an investigation into a 2016 accident in Chester, Penn., that killed two track workers.

Federal law requires railroads, by the end of 2018, to have positive train control, which automatically slows trains if they are exceeding speed limits or approaching dangerous conditions. In its latest progress report to the railroad administration, Amtrak said it had installed positive train control on all 603 miles of track on the Northeast Corridor, from Washington to Boston.

Congress passed the law requiring positive train control in 2008, after the head-on collision of a commuter train and a freight train in Los Angeles killed 25 people. Railroads were supposed to have the system in place by 2015, but it became clear that many of them would not meet that deadline, the industry lobbied for more time, and Congress postponed the requirement by three years.

The Washington State Department of Transportation has said that the entire Cascades route will have the system by mid-2018, but it was not clear whether it was in operation on Monday on any part of the line.

The track where the accident occurred was newly renovated, as a result of an Obama-era infrastructure investment program.

Backed by the state of Washington, Sound Transit, the regional transit agency, used $180 million from the 2009 federal stimulus package to buy an old 14.5-mile stretch of track and upgrade it for faster passenger service. The project, known as the Point Defiance Bypass, was devised to allow Cascades trains to stop using a more roundabout route that they shared with freight trains, making for faster, more reliable travel.

The state also spent $58 million from the stimulus bill on eight new locomotives, specifically for that service. The Cascades service embodies the complex, overlapping responsibilities on many of the nation’s rail lines. Officials said the service was owned by the states of Washington and Oregon and operated by Amtrak, whereas the Point Defiance Bypass track is owned by Sound Transit and dispatched by BNSF, the freight company that used to own the line.

One of those new locomotives was pulling the train that crashed on Monday. That locomotive and all 12 passenger coaches derailed, leaving only a trailing locomotive — which was not in use at the time — with its wheels still firmly on the tracks.

The lead locomotive and several of the coaches plunged into a stand of trees and down an embankment, some ending up on the highway. At least two coaches tumbled onto their sides, one of them on top of another coach, and two others came to a stop dangling precariously off the edge of the bridge.

Parts of the train struck seven vehicles on the highway, injuring some people in them. Officials said the deaths and the most serious injuries occurred aboard the rail coaches.

The accident closed the southbound lanes of I-5, the main north-south corridor through the region, and officials declined to say when they might reopen.

To see this article in the New York Times on the Amtrak train derailment, click here.

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