Analysis: Early observations on the ‘Amtrak Cascades’ derailment

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This overall view shows cars off both sides of the tracks at the Interstate 5 bridge near DuPont, Wash., on Monday.
Steve Carter
TACOMA, Wash. – Long before the National Transportation Safety Board issues its preliminary and final conclusions on Monday’s deadly derailment of Amtrak Cascades train No. 501 in Washington State, there are important facts to note and clarify about what’s been said and what’s been reported. Here are four important aspects to keep in mind as the details of this tragic event emerge:
1. This was not a “high-speed” route: The single-track portion of the Point Defiance bypass through Tacoma south of Lakewood, Wash., was part of an $800 million, stimulus-funded capacity improvement project between Seattle and Portland, Ore., that upgraded a former freight line to improve travel times by 10 minutes. When Interstate 5 was built years ago, the track was reconstructed to fly over the highway but the $150 million of funding was not sufficient to take the curve out. Media reporting has quoted Lakewood Mayor Don Anderson about his safety concerns of 79-mph Amtrak trains running through his town where none had traveled that fast previously, but his statements about common occurrences in communities across the country have nothing to do with what happened on the I-5 bridge
Amtrak safety training suspect – again: This was a new route in which presumably every engineer and conductor operating over it would be thoroughly familiar with its physical characteristics after making numerous test runs. Temporary speed restrictions are always noted in safety advisories prior to each trip to enable the operating crewmembers to communicate with each other via radio approaching the restriction. This was the first revenue trip on a new route, so even with one person in the cab (we don’t yet know if this was the case or if there was someone else there) the conductor should have reminded the engineer that he was approaching a 30-mph restriction on a 79-mph route. On July 2, an engineer ran through a stop signal and derailed a train on the original route via Point Defiance. That should have been a wake-up call.
3. Implementation of PTC wasn’t necessary to prevent this accident: Had positive train control been tested and certified on this and countless other routes awaiting certification by the Federal Railroad Administration, the speed compliance feature would have applied a penalty brake application in advance of the 30-mph curve. However, in similar situations where significant and immediate speed reductions are required, signal indications can be modified from “clear” to “approach” to always remind engineers of an upcoming slowdown. This was done belatedly at the scene Metro-North’s Hudson Line derailment at Spuyten Duyvil, N.Y., several years ago, and for northbound trains at Frankford Junction in Philadelphia after the similar wreck of Amtrak train No. 188 in May 2015.
Talgo equipment suffered its first serious accident: The Talgo trainset that derailed at the Steilacoom, Wash., drawbridge when an engineer ran through a stop signal remained intact; cars did not jackknife and stayed upright. Here the cars were no match for the centrifugal force created when the Siemens Charger locomotive leading train No. 501 jumped the tracks to land on I-5. Some passenger cars landed upside down on the highway or in the woods. Details of where death and serious injuries occurred have yet to emerge, but photos from the scene show extensive damage to these cars. The semi-permanent coupling sheared off completely, with some cars winding up next to each other. On the other hand, the Series 6 trainset shells remained intact on all but the upside-down vehicles, and the rear of the train did not uncouple as it came to a sudden stop.
As more information is released, Trains News Wire will attempt to analyze what this accident means for passenger rail in general and the Amtrak Cascades corridor in particular.

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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