Agencies react to criticisms of mistakes leading to 2017 Amtrak Cascades crash

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SEATTLE — The National Transportation Safety Board wasn’t stingy in handing out criticisms or recommendations for changes in the aftermath of the December 2017 Amtrak Cascades derailment, so those on the receiving end have a lot of work ahead of them figuring out if and how they’ll respond to the safety board.

For the Washington State Department of Transportation, Sound Transit, Amtrak, Talgo, and the Federal Railroad Administration, the overarching question about operating procedures is: When will the Point Defiance Bypass be put into service for Amtrak Cascades service and the Coast Starlight?

Representatives of the involved parties were non-committal Tuesday about their responses to any questions, including that one.

“All of the involved agencies will be evaluating the schedule for returning to the bypass and determining what’s feasible,” wrote Janet Matkin, communications manager for the Washington state transportation department's rail, freight, and ports division, adding that the department needs time to review the board’s report in detail.

Washington's transportation department indicated it wouldn’t do anything before the release of the NTSB report or before positive train control was in place not just on the bypass but on the entire Cascades corridor (Blaine, Wash., to Eugene, Ore.). As recently as Wednesday morning, the department still had on its website a notice that “we are planning for trains to return to the Point Defiance Bypass sometime in 2019, though an exact date has not been set.”

Sound Transit, which owns the bypass line from Tacoma, Wash., to its connection with the BNSF Railway main line just south of the overpass where the derailment occurred, was more forthcoming about what it has already done, although it was quick to note that “Sound Transit does not operate any service in the segment of track where the accident took place.”

The transit agency, which is building and operates a region wide light-rail system in addition to its own commuter-rail system, said it has revised operating procedures in the area of the bypass where the derailment occurred. Instead of having an abrupt change in speed zones from almost 80 mph to 30 mph, Sound Transit has revised speed limits to a two-step reduction, moving from 79 mph to 50, and then from 50 mph to 30. It has also installed what it calls supplementary signage.

The engineer on Amtrak Cascades 501 told investigators he missed the first trackside sign that a curve was ahead. Sound Transit said it has set up a “crew focus zone” in which the train operator and the conductor are required to verbally communicate with each other about speed restrictions.

One point most observers seem to agree upon already is that the accident could have been avoided had PTC been in place where and when the derailment occurred.

“Sound Transit has been a leader among commuter railroads in the United States in implementing PTC and completed all investments in advance of last December’s federal deadline,” the agency said in its statement. “The launch of PTC in 2018 has greatly increased safety on this corridor and others where passenger trains operate, especially for over-speed incidents. If PTC had been operational on the train that derailed it would have detected an inappropriate speed in relation to the train’s location and applied automatic braking.”

But that raises the question of why opening the bypass wasn’t delayed until PTC was installed.

“The derailment occurred on a section of track between DuPont and Tacoma known as the Lakewood Subdivision that Sound Transit acquired for the purpose of establishing Sounder commuter rail service between Tacoma and Lakewood,” the agency said. "While Sound Transit does not plan to utilize the southerly section of tracks where the derailment occurred, the agency agreed to allow the Amtrak Cascades program to design and fund improvements to the tracks that would enable its trains to use them."

Sound Transit continued in its statement that it completed Amtrak-funded track improvements in 2017 and that contractors completed PTC installation by February 2018. PTC is now fully operational, the agency adds, in the entire corridor.

Amtrak’s response didn’t address the issues raised by the Cascades derailment so much as listing changes in its overall safety culture (a change NTSB board members made note of in Tuesday’s hearing), including creation of a new safety organization and speeded-up implementation of a safety management system.

Also on the list of accomplishments: Increased use of simulators to include details of specific routes, development of a comprehensive process for how new routes like the bypass are qualified for service and adoption of a new engineer route qualification protocol to standardize how crews are trained, evaluated and qualified on new territory. The engineer’s lack of familiarity of the route was a key finding by the NTSB.

The Federal Railroad Administration said it “values its working relationship with the NTSB and acknowledges its factual findings issued yesterday. …FRA takes all NTSB recommendations very seriously and we will carefully review them and directly address each one in our formal response within the next 90 days.”

While not directly involved in the planning, development, and operation of Cascade service or the bypass, the rail-passenger advocacy group All Aboard Washington has direct interest in the investigation. Two of the organization’s board members were among the three passengers killed in the derailment.

"... I was concerned when I heard from the hearing that the safety management and planning processes appear to have been far below the standards expected of modern transportation and testing systems,” wrote the group’s President Harvey Bowen. "In particular, I am glad that the report did not attempt to focus blame on one entity or individual. This tragedy appears to have been preventable at many points and in many ways."

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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