Train in Amtrak crash was speeding. Inquiry asks why

Has once again focused attention on company's safety culture
Workers use heavy equipment to clear the scene of an Amtrak train derailment in DuPont, Wash., on Dec. 19, 2017.
Workers use heavy equipment to clear the scene of an Amtrak train derailment in DuPont, Wash., on Dec. 19, 2017.

DUPONT, Wash. — The investigation into the fatal Amtrak crash near Tacoma, Washington, is focusing on the possibility that the engineer was distracted by a cellphone, another person in his cab, or something else when the train barreled into a curve 50 mph over the posted speed limit.

The crew did not activate the emergency brake before the derailment near Tacoma on Monday morning, said Bella Dinh-Zarr, the National Transportation Safety Board official overseeing the investigation, which might indicate that the engineer failed to perceive the danger.

At a news conference on Tuesday afternoon, she said the badly damaged cameras in the engineer’s cab — one facing forward, and the other inward, toward the person driving the train — had been sent to the safety board’s laboratory in Washington, D.C., to try to extract images showing what went on in the moments before the train plunged into a stand of trees and onto a busy highway.

Dinh-Zarr stressed that the crew members — all of them hospitalized — had not yet been interviewed, and most of the evidence not yet analyzed. A data recorder on the train, carrying 77 passengers and seven crew members, indicated that it was racing at 80 mph into a curve that is limited to 30 mph, the safety board said. Excessive speed appeared to be the immediate cause of the crash, but the reason for that speed remained unknown.

“Distraction is one of our most wanted list of priorities at the NTSB,” she said. “It’s protocol for us to look at all of the cellphone records of all the crew members whenever there is an accident of this type.”

There was a second person in the cab at the time of the crash, “a conductor who was getting experience and familiarizing himself with the territory,” Dinh-Zarr said. While that is common practice, rail safety experts say it can also be a distraction to the engineer, a possibility that she said would be investigated.

Drug and alcohol testing of crews is routine after train accidents, and the inward-facing cameras could show not only whether the engineer was distracted, but also whether he was impaired or fatigued — factors that have been blamed in other rail accidents.

Amtrak 501 on the Cascades service between Seattle and Portland was the first to carry passengers on a new, faster route between Tacoma and Olympia, on tracks recently upgraded for passenger service. The unfamiliar, 14.5-mile stretch includes a spot where southbound trains leave a straightaway on a downhill slope before reaching the crash site, where the tracks curve onto an overpass crossing Interstate 5.

On that new part of the trip, “crews have been operating for at least two weeks prior to the accident with nonrevenue trains,” she said, including the engineer who was at the controls on Monday morning. But she would not say whether they had enough training before hauling passengers.

The fact that the train was on its inaugural run — and that the tracks had only recently been improved — may have contributed to the derailment, said Allan Zarembski, a professor of railroad safety and engineering at the University of Delaware.

The accident mirrored a 2015 crash in Philadelphia that killed eight people, when an Amtrak train took a turn much too fast and jumped the tracks. In the 2015 Philadelphia Amtrak derailment, the NTSB found that the engineer had lost “situational awareness” of where the train was on the route.

In this week’s accident, “the operator may not have been 100 percent familiar with that route or misjudged where he was and didn’t start to slow down for that curve,” Zarembski said. “I’m sure there was some familiarization, but the question is, how familiar was he with it?”

Operators generally carefully study documents known as track charts, which describe the route’s speed limits and tricky areas, before stepping into the cab, he said.

A former safety board railroad investigator, Russell Quimby, said that while there was no national standard for how many dry runs a railroad had to perform before opening a line, it was common to run practice trains under a variety of weather conditions and other circumstances.

After a private briefing by investigators, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said, “there are a thousand unanswered questions about this right now.”

The safety board blamed the 2008 crash of a commuter train in Los Angeles, which killed 25 people, on the distraction of the engineer, who was composing a text message when he ran a red light and collided with a freight train.

That accident played an important role in evolving rail safety standards. It led the safety board to recommend inward-facing cameras in train cabs, and Amtrak committed in 2015 to installing them.

The crash also prompted Congress to require that railroads adopt a system called positive train control — which the safety board has sought for decades — that automatically slows or stops a train that is moving too fast, or is in danger of running a red light or hitting another train.

The law originally set a 2015 deadline for positive train control, which uses sensors both on the trains and along the tracks, communicating by radio frequencies. But after lobbying by railroads, Congress postponed the requirement.

“Unfortunately, the deadline was the end of 2015, but Congress extended that deadline to the train companies, and allowed them to have until the end of 2018,” Dinh-Zarr said.

Sound Transit, the regional agency that owns the track where the train derailed on Monday, said the system had been installed along the line, and the Washington state Department of Transportation has said that the entire Cascades route will have the system by mid-2018.

Dinh-Zarr said, “The locomotive was in the process of getting a PTC system installed but it was not yet functional.”

Last Friday, a Cascades train took local dignitaries on the new route, including Eric F. Corp, a DuPont city councilman. Long before then, he said, people who knew anything about the line knew that there was a big curve going over the highway, requiring a major slowdown.

“What speed we were going when we went around the corner I’m not sure, but it was slow and methodical,” he said. “It wasn’t like we were leaning or at no time did I think we were going too fast.”

Two of the people killed, Zack Willhoite and James Hamre, were close friends and rail enthusiasts, traveling together on the train’s first public voyage. Hamre, a retired engineer, was a volunteer for All Aboard Washington, a rail advocacy organization; Willhoite worked as a customer support specialist for Pierce Transit, a local transportation 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, Flem said he had seen both men just a few days ago and they were eager to board the train early Monday morning.

On Tuesday, the scene of the crash, surrounded by police and emergency vehicles, began to look more like a construction site than a disaster. In a steady rain, huge cranes moved into place and began 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.

The crash left at least two coaches tumbled onto their sides, one of them on top of another coach, and two dangling precariously off the edge of the bridge; the locomotive that was pulling the train came to a stop on the highway. Of the 14 cars in the train, only the locomotive at the rear, which was not in use at the time, did not derail.

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