Engineer training, identification of hazardous curve questioned in deadly 'Cascades' crash

RELATED TOPICS: PASSENGER | AMTRAK | DERAILMENTS/WRECKS
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Amtrak engineer training came under scrutiny at a National Transportation Safety Board hearing on the December 2017 Cascades derailment.
Steve Carter

WASHINGTON — The training of Amtrak engineers, as well as the extent of efforts to identify a potentially dangerous curve, were focal points in Tuesday’s National Transportation Safety Board hearing on last December’s fatal derailment of an Amtrak Cascades train at DuPont. Wash.

The Dec. 19, 2017, wreck of train No. 501, which killed three passengers, was the subject of part of a two-day NTSB hearing which also looked into the Feb. 4, 2018, derailment of the Silver Star in Cayce, S.C. [See “CSX, Amtrak tell hearing of operating changes since fatal ‘Silver Star’ wreck,” Trains News Wire, July 12, 2018.]

The fact-finding hearing raised questions whether Amtrak operating crews had a sufficient number of familiarization runs before beginning revenue service on a new bypass route south of Tacoma, Wash. The derailment occurred on the first Amtrak revenue run on the Point Defiance bypass between Tacoma and Nisqually, Wash.

Responses to questioning by NTSB Chair Robert Sumwalt revealed that most qualifying runs were conducted at night so as to avoid interference with Sounder commuter train runs, which were already operating over a portion of the line during the day. One such training run had seven people in the cab, exceeding the number considered safe by Amtrak standards. At the same time, new Siemens Chargers were being introduced on the Cascades, so engineers were also familiarizing themselves with the locomotives. In his interviews with NTSB, Sumwalt reported, the engineer of the ill-fated train said the curve at milepost 19.8 was on his mind, but that his limited familiarity with the lines of sight from the Charger locomotive may have hindered his ability to see the wayside warning signs until it was too late. The derailment came at that curve, which had a 30 mph speed limit, following a section of straight, 79-mph track. The last recorded speed of the locomotive before the crash was 78 mph; the engineer had applied the train brakes moments before the derailment. [See “NTSB: Amtrak ‘Cascades” engineer applied brakes seconds before crash,” Trains News Wire, Dec. 22, 2017]

Going forward, Amtrak will only begin a new service or routing “once all safety precautions and mitigations are in place,” testified Mike DeCataldo, Amtrak senior director for system safety and customer satisfaction. The passenger carrier will require a minimum of four round-trips over the entirety of the new route, up from the previous minimum of one, before an engineer or conductor is qualified to operate over it.

The curve where the derailment occurred “wasn’t specifically called out” in initial hazard analysis, Sound Transit Construction Safety Manager Robert Taaffe testified, although the route's curves were generally given a rating indication they were “unacceptable” without mitigation. Notices and signage approaching the curve downgraded the risk to “undesirable.” Positive train control, which would have prevented the train from exceeding the speed limit, had not yet been activated on the bypass. Amtrak, which moved trains back to their original coastal route following the accident, will not return to the bypass until PTC is operational. That is expected before the end of 2018.

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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