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.
Engineer Distraction a Likely Cause of the Derailment
NTSB investigators said the engineer appeared to be familiar with the new route after several Amtrak-required trial runs in recent weeks, causing them to suspect that the engineer was distracted by the conductor sitting beside him who was familiarizing himself with the new route. The NTSB will also examine the cell phones of all crew members, as standard protocol in NTSB investigations. Typically, the agency’s investigators review data for more than a year before meeting publicly in Washington, D.C., to determine why and how a crash occurred.
Excessive Speed Caused 2015 Philadelphia Train Crash
A nearly identical train crash occurred in a May 2015 derailment in Philadelphia, when an Amtrak engineer’s attention was diverted to an emergency involving another train. Traveling at an excessive speed of over 100mph, the train failed to negotiate a curve, killing 188 and injuring dozens more before coming to a stop. Although the engineer recalled very little about the crash, the investigation found no evidence that alcohol or drugs were involved, causing investigators to conclude in a report that the derailment was caused by human error due to distraction.
2016 Hoboken Train Crash Due to Engineer Fatigue
In September 2016, one woman was killed and over 100 people were injured when a commuter train plowed through the barrier at the end of the tracks and crashed into a wall in Hoboken terminal. While a train is supposed to come to a stop about 10-20 feet in front of the bumper at a speed of 10 miles per hour, the Hoboken train was traveling at twice that speed when it jumped over the bumper onto the concourse. The engineer was found to have the dangerous fatigue-inducing disorder sleep apnea, that caused him to fall asleep at the controls.
Positive Train Control Would Have Prevented Crashes
All three deadly crashes could have been prevented if Positive Train Control had been installed and operational on those trains. Positive Train Control (PTC) is an expensive to install, GPS-based safety technology that monitors and controls train movement caused by human error, to bring a train to a stop to prevent a crash. PTC communicates through a brain’s onboard computer visual and audible information to train crew members when the train needs to be slowed or stopped. If the engineer does not respond to the audible warning and screen display, the onboard computer will activate the brakes and stop the train.
Delays and More Delays Threaten Rail Passenger Safety
PTC has been on the NTSB’s list of most wanted safety innovations since the 1990s. In 2008, Congress passed a law requiring all railroads to install PTC by December, 2015. Nearing the deadline, several railroad companies threatened to shut down services unless Congress gave them more time, so Congress extended the deadline, giving companies until December 31, 2018, with extensions up to 2020 and maybe 2022, if certain requirements are met.
According to a 2017 Department of Transportation progress report, Amtrak had installed PTC technology on 67 percent of its tracks and 49 percent of its locomotives. The Northeast Corridor, the busiest Amtrak route in the country, has PTC fully installed. The entire state of California has also installed Positive Train Control throughout all of its 512-mile rail network.
WSDOT Extends PTC Deadline to 2018
Positive Train Control would have automatically slowed down the Washington train from 81mph to 30mph to negotiate the curve and prevent the derailment. Although the 14.5-mile Point Defiance corridor, at the time of the crash, was equipped for Positive Train Control equipment, the train controls were not operating in that area. PTC is a complex system that requires not just GPS units in each locomotive, but also many thousands of signaling devices along sections of miles of track which transmit cab codes to antennas on railroad cars. Washington State Department of Transportation’s target date for having PTC operational for the segment of the track was second quarter of 2018.
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