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Amtrak Pacific NW Derailment

NTSB investigators have released a preliminary accident report

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Composite image: Amtrak's Pacific Northwest derailment raises a number of troubling questions. © Politico

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has issued a preliminary report on last month's Amtrak derailment outside of Tacoma, Washington. The accident occurred along the just-opened Point Defiance Bypass, part of a $150 million makeover designed to cut travel times along the busy Amtrak Cascades Portland-Seattle corridor. Now it appears that budgetary constraints along with looming Federal deadlines may have pushed the project over the edge.
The December 18th inaugural run of the rerouted Amtrak Cascades train 501 ended with the dismembered dual-locomotive, twelve-car trainset strewn across Interstate-5 bridge tracks and the highway below — with three lifeless bodies entangled in the wreckage.
Initial NTSB findings largely confirm several earlier independent reports.
The Amtrak train jumped the track along a dangerous curve in DuPont, Washington. Initial project recommendations had called for the curve to be replaced by a straightaway but such extensive re-tracking was deemed cost prohibitive. The upshot is that all trains need to slow their speed from 80 mph to 30 mph along a 2 mile approach to the curve.
Use-it-or-lose-it conditions for Federal stimulus funding forced Washington to rush the corridor project to meet September spending deadlines. Meanwhile, federal deadlines for Positive Train Control (PTC) installation — technology that most likely would have prevented the derailment — were extended to the end of 2018. Washington DOT (WADOT) has claimed that all NTSB safety measures were in effect, while at the same time announcing that service along the replacement line will not be reinstated until PTC installation is complete.
Engineer qualification training may have also been rushed in order to meet funding-dependent deadlines. Allegations suggest that up to six engineer trainees were crowded into two-person locomotive cabs during some training sessions, that after-dark sessions left trainees unfamiliar with daytime landmarks, and that one of the train's lead locomotive control cab engineers had not completed qualification training.
After preliminary reviews of the train's event recorder and cameras, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has indicated engineer actions appear to have followed proper protocols and that the train's final speed was 78 mph. The NTSB expects its full investigation to last from 12 to 24 months. The derailment has also heightened concerns about both the proposed Portland, OR - Vancouver, BC high-speed line and the new Orlando-Miami Brightline link which will begin limited service this month.


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