Amtrak train that crashed was on first run

A high-speed Amtrak train that derailed in Washington state on Monday morning was embarking on its inaugural run, raising questions about whether the passenger railroad was properly equipped to handle the new service.

The horrific crash, which left multiple people dead and injured, brought to life a chilling concern voiced by Lakewood Mayor Don Anderson earlier this month: The new route could wind up killing someone.

“Something went very, very wrong,” Rep. Denny HeckDennis (Denny) Lynn HeckExclusive: Guccifer 2.0 hacked memos expand on Pennsylvania House races Heck enjoys second political wind Incoming lawmaker feeling a bit overwhelmed MORE (D-Wash.), who represents the district where the crash occurred, said Monday. “There are some questions we will demand to be answered.”

An Amtrak train carrying 78 passengers was traveling across a highway overpass in DuPont, Wash., and entering into a curve when it derailed, causing two rail cars to fall onto the highway below and leaving another dangling in the air. It’s unclear what caused the crash or how fast the train was going.

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The train was part of a brand new Cascades high-speed rail service program that Amtrak launched Monday morning between Seattle and Portland. The train can travel up to a maximum speed of 79 mph and the cars are supposed to be equipped with a special technology that uses gravity to allow it to tilt through curves while it maintains speed.

“The additional trips make the service more convenient and accessible for all travelers and allow more options for day trips along the corridor,” Amtrak says on its website.

But Washington state officials have long been raising various safety concerns about the new high-speed route, including a warning that it could be especially dangerous for trains to travel that fast when they head into a curve.

Amtrak did not immediately return a request for comment about when and how many test-runs were performed on the tracks prior to Monday, and whether there were any extra precautions taken to ensure that the new service ran smoothly on its first day.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has sent a team of investigators to the scene, where they will be exploring whether mechanical or human errors were to blame.

Transportation experts say the NTSB will likely be looking at whether the tracks were properly equipped to handle the speed, how many practice runs were conducted, how fast the train was going, what the speed limit was, whether the brakes were applied and if there was proper signaling.

Some of those questions could be easily discerned from the train’s event recorder. But stickier questions — like whether Amtrak did enough to prepare its tracks and train engineers for the new high-speed service — may take much longer to answer.

“They’re gonna go back and look very carefully at the work that was done upgrading the rails to allow for this 79-miles-per-hour speed,” Peter Goelz, a former NTSB managing director, told CNN. “You need to make sure that the rails have been checked, that the rail bed has been checked, that the ties have been correct.”

“We want to make sure that all the resources that should have been there were put in place,” he added.

Amtrak's president and co-CEO Richard Anderson reportedly said on a conference call that Positive Train Control (PTC), a technology that will eventually be required by law and that can automatically slow down a train that is going over the speed limit, was not activated along the crash route.

Safety advocates have criticized how slow railroads have been in implementing the costly and potentially life-saving technology. Amtrak has 67 percent of its route miles in PTC operation as of the second quarter of this year — the latest data available. 

Congress originally gave commuter and freight railroads until the end of 2015 to install the technology, which can prevent derailments, collisions and improper track switching. But as railroads struggled to meet compliance deadlines, lawmakers pushed back the PTC implementation date to at least Dec. 31, 2018.

“We don’t know that it could have saved lives, but it’s a disappointment to me that we aren’t farther along in the implementation of installing PTC onto trains throughout America, not just in my district,” Heck said.

Amtrak, which is under new leadership, has long had to fight for adequate resources on Capitol Hill. President TrumpDonald John Trump20 weeks out from midterms, Dems and GOP brace for surprises Sessions responds to Nazi comparisons: 'They were keeping the Jews from leaving' Kim Jong Un to visit Beijing this week MORE’s proposed 2018 budget would slash funding for Amtrak’s long-distance routes, while some Republicans have sought to entirely eliminate Amtrak’s $1.1 billion in federal subsidies.

But Trump seized on the Amtrak derailment to push for his forthcoming plan to rebuild crumbling U.S. infrastructure.

“The train accident that just occurred in DuPont, WA shows more than ever why our soon to be submitted infrastructure plan must be approved quickly,” Trump tweeted Monday, hours after the crash. “Seven trillion dollars spent in the Middle East while our roads, bridges, tunnels, railways (and more) crumble! Not for long!”

The Washington State Department of Transportation said it used $800 million in federal funds from the Obama administration’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to upgrade the route for high-speed rail service.

-This story was updated at 4 p.m.