Are we safer a year after Washington Amtrak derailment?

A year ago today, the southbound inaugural Amtrak Cascades train 501 derailed over Interstate 5 near DuPont, Washington. The train was traveling at 78 mph through a curve with a speed limit of 30 mph curve.

Three passengers were killed and another 62 were injured, 10 of those were seriously injured. Eight others were also injured when part of the train fell onto the busy highway below.

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The estimated damage was over $40.4 million. The train was traveling on the new $181 million single-track Point Defiance Bypass that follows I-5 between Seattle and Portland. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), sent a 20-member team to investigate. Their final report has yet to be issued to the public. Yet, service will resume on Amtrak Cascades passenger trains over the Point Defiance Bypass in the spring of 2019.

So, how did this happen? Are we any safer today than a year ago?

The safety board released a preliminary report last January and a news release three weeks later. To a trained observer, several things become apparent safety issues:

  • training and qualification of the conductor and engineer in the locomotive cab
  • safety oversight by the principal transportation entities involved
  • the lack of Positive Train Control (PTC), which automatically prevents such overspeed situations

Despite the importance and publicity of this first run of service, the conductor and engineer had never worked together. The conductor is nominally in charge of the train although the engineer physically controls the train. Part of the duties of the conductor on this run was to “qualify” or become familiar with the route. The conductor told investigators that he spent time looking at his paperwork to help learn the territory, and that he and the engineer had minimal conversation. Just before the derailment, the qualifying conductor was looking down at his general track bulletins when he heard the engineer mumble something. As the conductor looked up, the train was becoming “airborne.”

In the five weeks before the wreck, the engineer had “qualified” on the Point Defiance section of the railroad by completing seven to 10 observation trips (riding) in the locomotive cab and three trips actually operating the train while under supervision, two northbound — but only one southbound — the route used on the day of the accident. At the time of the accident, there was 9 mph wind and 10 miles visibility. There was a light rain and it was 48 degrees Fahrenheit.

The engineer remembered going about 79 mph as the train passed mile post 15.5. He was aware of the 30 mph speed restricted curve four miles ahead at mile post 19.8 where there was also a wayside signal. He said that he planned to start braking about a mile before the curve.

The engineer said that he saw mileposts 16 and 17 but did not remember seeing milepost 18 — or the 30 mph advance warning speed sign posted two miles before the curve. He said that he did see the wayside signal at milepost 19.8 for the curve but mistook it for another signal. Finally, when the engineer saw the 30 mph sign at the start of the curve. He applied the brakes albeit too late as the train entered the curve. 

Were the conductor and engineer adequately trained and qualified for this run? Obviously not.

Only one previous actual southbound operating trip by the engineer is absurd, and to have along an unqualified conductor to “supervise” or even “help” is worse. What were the Amtrak supervisors thinking?

This was relatively new railroad that many engineers and conductors had not yet qualified on. Therefore, there was an urgency to qualify as many engineers and conductors as possible before service started.

Previous route qualification training had taken place at night when busy freight railroad traffic could accommodate the luxury of a non-revenue passenger train on multiple training runs. As a result, the engineer may have had difficulty associating daytime landmarks with the speeding train’s ever-changing location. 

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In addition, there are allegations that these prior night training sessions had upwards of six people in the locomotive cab in order to qualify as many engineers and conductors as possible in the short amount of available time — despite the fact that there are usually only two seats in the relatively small cab. Thus, it is alleged that none of the qualifying engineers were getting the undivided attention needed to memorize the route without distraction.

At any rate, it is apparent that neither crew member knew where they were until immediately before the crash. Both engineer and conductor were seriously injured and I’m sure neither intentionally provoked the derailment.

Finally, the determination to start service with minimally qualified locomotive crews and without implementation of positive train control (PTC) seems risky at best and reckless at worst. The PTC system is crucial. Service is expected to resume when the system is fully operational and operating seamlessly. Yet, when the route becomes operational we still won’t have all the answers on why the 2017 inaugural run ended in tragedy.

Russell G. Quimby is a railroad and rapid transit accident consultant and expert witness. Quimby previously worked as a National Transportation Safety Board safety engineer for more than 20 years, investigating transit accidents to determine probable cause and proposed safety recommendations.