The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), in preliminary findings based upon event recorder data, identified the cause of the derailment as an overspeed condition. NTSB also cited a lapse in situational awareness on the part of the driver as a possible contributing factor, as there was a second person in the cab.
The Seattle - Portland train was operating at 130km/h on a section with a 48km/h speed restriction, according to event recorder data obtained from the trailing locomotive. The derailment came on the first day of operation by Amtrak on the new Port Defiance Bypass south of Tacoma. The lead locomotive, a Siemens Charger diesel-electric, also new to the service, and a P42 Genesis locomotive at the rear were providing push-pull power for the 12-car Talgo train. All the passenger coaches derailed, and five road vehicles on the highway were hit by the train. There were five crew, one technician and 80 passengers onboard the train. At least 50 people were hospitalised, more than a dozen with critical or serious injuries. No one on the highway was killed.
NTSB investigators are looking into whether the Amtrak driver was distracted by the presence of a conductor-in-training in the locomotive cab, a federal official said. The official, who was not authorised to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said investigators want to know whether the driver lost situational awareness because of the second person in the cab.
Preliminary information indicated that the emergency brakes deployed automatically and were not manually activated by the driver, NTSB member Ms Bella Dinh-Zarr said, citing data from the locomotive’s event recorder.
Positive Train Control (PTC) had been installed on the right-of-way, but was not operational, said Mr Geoff Patrick, spokesman for Sound Transit, which owns the right-of-way. The target date for having PTC operation for the segment of the track where the derailment occurred is the second quarter of 2018. Locomotives and driving trailers also need to be equipped with PTC. To date, Amtrak has equipped 49% of its locomotives and driving trailers, according to Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) data from the second quarter of 2017.
The Bypass, the former BNSF Lakewood Subdivision now owned by Sound Transit, was rebuilt to route Amtrak Cascades and other long-distance trains around the former, slower route along Puget Sound on BNSF-owned tracks. The project includes a stop at the new Tacoma station at Freighthouse Square, and 20 passenger rail improvements administered by Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and paid for with nearly $US 800m in federal funds. It was to support two additional daily Amtrak Cascades roundtrips between Seattle and Portland, cut journey time between the cities by 10 minutes and improve punctuality by avoiding shared operations with freight trains.
A WSDOT track chart shows the maximum operating speed drops from 127km/h to 48km/h for passenger trains just before the tracks curve to cross Interstate 5. The chart, dated February 7 2017, was submitted to the FRA in anticipation of the start of passenger service on the Bypass.
A retired railway official who worked on PTC offers the following observations:
“BNSF is not responsible for track construction and maintenance or signal installation and maintenance on the formerly BNSF-owned Lakewood Subdivision. Those functions have been assigned to contractors by the present owner, Sound Transit. BNSF does provide dispatching service. The dispatcher is the Seattle Subdivision dispatcher.
“Even though PTC was an unfunded mandate for all of the freight railroads, BNSF leadership was determined to have PTC installed by the original December 31 2015 deadline. That would have happened had it not been for the Federal Communications Commission blocking the permitting of the necessary communication towers until pressured into changing the process by the Obama Administration and Congress. BNSF had planned to develop and install PTC on its own before the 2008 mandate, and intended to pay for it with crew size reductions in the core territories where implemented.
“BNSF has implemented PTC on all 88 planned subdivisions. The Seattle Subdivision is one of them. All BNSF and Union Pacific trains operate with PTC just as if it were already required by FRA regulations. For many months now, the only trains operating on the Seattle Subdivision without operational PTC have been Amtrak trains. The same situation exists on many other BNSF subdivisions. As a matter of fact, PTC had already been installed and was in full operation on the Seattle Sub when an Amtrak train passed a red absolute signal and derailed in the switch point power derail protecting the Chambers Bay Drawbridge earlier this year. The problem was Amtrak trains were not PTC-equipped.
“The question has been asked as to why the new operation on the Lakewood Subdivision was implemented on December 18, before PTC implementation was complete. The answer: it did not make any difference since none of the Amtrak locomotives had PTC anyway.
“PTC was mandated because of the loss of life in the Metrolink/UP incident at Chatsworth. Since that time, freight railroads have spent more than $US 8bn to develop the system and install it. Passenger railroads including Amtrak will be the last to become compliant by the December 31 2018 deadline. I believe final passenger train PTC implementation will occur in the 11th hour. Debugging after January 1 2019, when no trains can be operated on most passenger routes without PTC, could create a huge service crisis at Amtrak and some high-density regional and suburban operations. Meanwhile, we are left to listen to politicians howl about how the freight railroads have been dragging their feet.
“BNSF has turned PTC on and is living with it. Better to be doing it now than late next year.”
Map showing the location of the derailment. Railways are shown in orange. openrailwaymap.org