NTSB: PTC would have notified the engineer of speed reduction

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An overhead view of the crash of Amtrak Cascades train No. 501 on Dec. 18, 2017.
Washington State Patrol via National Transportation Safety Board
WASHINGTON — Positive train control would have notified the engineer of Amtrak Cascades train 501 about a 30-mph speed restriction approaching the curve where the 12-car passenger train derailed last month near Olympia, Wash., the National Transportation Safety Board reports.

A preliminary report issued by the NTSB says PTC was not in use on new Point Defiance Bypass tracks where Amtrak 501 derailed on Dec. 18, 2017, killing three people and injuring 62 others. The passenger train was making its first public trip on the bypass.

The tracks where the Amtrak-operated train derailed were owned by the Sound Transit commuter rail agency. Like many other commuter rail operators, the agency had until Dec. 31, 2018, to implement PTC technology.

Washington State Department of Transportation officials have since closed the Point Defiance route pending PTC implementation.

NTSB investigators report that inward-facing video captured the train crew’s actions in the seconds leading up to the derailment, including a comment made by the 55-year-old engineer about an over-speed condition just six seconds before derailing.

The final recorded speed of the lead locomotive was 78 mph. The maximum train speed in the area where the train derailed was 30 mph.

Investigators say a 30-mph speed sign was posted 2 miles before the curve on the engineer’s side of the track and a second speed sign was located along the tracks at the beginning of the curve.

Inward-facing cameras captured the application of the locomotive’s brakes just before the recording ended. It did not appear the engineer placed the brake handle in emergency-braking mode, the NTSB says.

The train’s 55-year-old engineer had been working for Amtrak since May 2004 and was promoted to engineer in August 2013. Another crew member riding the lead locomotive was a 48-year-old qualifying conductor who was being familiarized with the new route. The employee had been working for Amtrak since June 2010 and was promoted to conductor in November 2011.

NTSB investigators have not yet interviewed either crew member due to their injuries sustained in the incident, although Spokane Public Radio reports that the qualifying conductor riding the lead locomotive is suing Amtrak for inadequate training.

An attorney representing the conductor alleges “…Amtrak and its partners had every opportunity to slow down the process and make sure that everybody was thoroughly and competently trained.”

An injured passenger has filed another lawsuit with similar allegations.

An Amtrak spokesperson did not comment on the pending litigation.

See the preliminary report online.
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