One year after 'Cascade' derailment, route awaits return to service, investigation continues

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A year after the fatal derailment of Amtrak Cascades train No. 501, service has not yet returned to the Point Defiance Bypass.
Steve Carter
A northbound Amtrak Cascades train passes the southern end of the Point Defiance Bypass, the track at right, at Nisqually, Wash., in June 2018. A year after the derailment of the first Amtrak train to use the bypass, no date has been set to return service to the route.
TRAINS: David Lassen
Amtrak's new Tacoma station, built for trains using the Point Defiance Bypass, awaits the return of passengers.
TRAINS: David Lassen

DUPONT, Wash. — A year after three people were killed when an Amtrak Cascades train derailed on its first run over a recently constructed bypass, passenger service has still not returned to the new route.

On Dec. 18, 2017, southbound train No. 501 derailed on a curve over Interstate 5 near DuPont, Wash. The train was the first revenue passenger train to travel over the 14.5-mile Point Defiance Bypass, a rebuilt line that takes passenger trains away from Puget Sound. According to investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board, the train was traveling at nearly 80 mph when it entered a 30-mph curve. [See "NTSB: Amtrak 'Cascades' engineeer applied brakes seconds before crash," Trains News Wire, Dec. 22, 2017.] Why the train’s engineer did not slow down has been a focus of the federal inquiry.

Positive train control was not in use at the time of the incident. Earlier this week, an Amtrak spokesperson told The Daily News in Longview, Wash. that PTC has since been installed on “100 percent” of the Cascades route between Vancouver and Eugene, Ore.

Immediately following the incident, Cascades trains went back to the original route along Puget Sound. Amtrak and Washington State Department of Transportation officials announced that Cascades trains would not return to the Point Defiance Bypass until PTC was fully installed. But this week, officials with WSDOT tell Trains News Wire that passenger service will likely not resume on the bypass until at least late spring, when the final NTSB report is released.

“We do not have a specific date yet for our return to the Point Defiance Bypass,” says Janet Matkin, WSDOT communications manager.

Last week, officials with the NTSB said that their inquiry into the fatal derailment was about “two-thirds complete.” In an update posted online, officials said the investigation was focusing on three major areas. One group of investigators was focusing on the crashworthiness of the Talgo passenger cars in the train’s consist. Another group was focusing on the decision to start running passenger trains on the Point Defiance Bypass prior to the completion of PTC installation. A third group was examining the emergency response to the derailment.

Less than a month after the derailment, an Amtrak employee and a passenger filed a lawsuit against the railroad alleging that it had inadequately trained its employees on the new route. Amtrak has denied the allegations in court documents. Approximately 35 lawsuits have been filed against Amtrak following the derailment.

Meanwhile, dozens of people are still recovering from the injuries they suffered a year ago. One of them, 82-year-old Rudy Wetzel, told KUOW Radio last week that he had been injured from head to toe. “I'm recovering. I'm getting better every day, but it's slow,” Wetzel said. “I'm still a very lucky guy compared to some of the other guys that got hurt on the train.”

Three people were killed in the derailment: Jim Hamre, 61; Zach Willhoite, 35; and Benjamin Gran, 40. All three were railroad enthusiasts excited to be on the inaugural run over the Point Defiance Bypass.

On Tuesday, WSDOT officials stated: “Our thoughts are with everyone involved in the Amtrak Cascades train 501 derailment last Dec. 18, especially passengers, crew and motorists — and their loved ones. We know that their lives have been forever affected by this tragic event.”

–This story was updated to reflect the correct date of the derailment

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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