On December 18, 2017, Amtrak Cascades’ first run of its new high-speed passenger service between Tacoma and Portland ended in disaster just minutes after departure when the train failed to negotiate a curve where the train crosses over Interstate 5.
Traveling at a speed of 81.1mph in a curved section of the track near DuPont, Washington posted with a 30mph speed limit, the train jumped the track and continued in a straight line over an Interstate 5 overpass near Mounts Road, spilling thirteen of the train’s 14 total cars onto the congested freeway below. Three passengers on the train were killed and those who survived were taken to hospitals with injuries. Miraculously, there were only a few injured passengers in vehicles on the freeway and no fatalities.
It was supposed to mark the beginning of expanded service of Amtrak’s Cascades route between Portland and Seattle with six round-trip trips per day. A separate passenger line, Amtrak Coast Starlight, would also travel the new route once per day. About 867,000 people rode Amtrak Cascades in 2016, with the average train carrying about 250 people. Monday’s train carried around 80 people when it came off the tracks.
Washington Rail Expansion Project Saves Little Travel Time
The line of track, through the Point Defiance Pass, was recently upgraded as part of Washington State Department of Transportation’s $181 million rail expansion project. The upgrades were part of $800 million in capital improvements meant to reduce delays south of Tacoma. Amtrak Cascades shared the tracks with oil and other freight trains. Although the new route was touted as faster, it would shave off only 10 minutes of total travel time.
NTSB Initiates Investigation of Crash
The National Transportation Safety Bureau (NTSB) was on the scene to learn what the crew was doing when the train went off the rails, and why the emergency brake was not activated by the engineer. The investigators interviewed the engineer, conductor, and the other three crew members for a long list of information, including how much sleep they got the night before, what they ate that morning and any medications they were taking. Emergency radio transmissions between the conductor and the dispatcher were reviewed, and video from inward- and outward-facing cameras damaged in the crash were taken to the board’s Washington, D.C. laboratories for data retrieval.