Careening around a curve at almost three times the speed limit, an Amtrak train derailed and hurled passenger cars off an overpass — and onto rush hour traffic below.
“It was like being inside an exploding bomb,” passenger Charlie Heebner told CNN affiliate KOMO.
The Amtrak Cascades 501 train was carrying 86 people on its first journey on a new route from Seattle to Portland when it derailed Monday.
The high-speed catastrophe killed three people and hurt more than 100.
It’s not clear why the train was traveling at 80 mph in a 30-mph zone, said National Transportation Safety Board member T. Bella Dinh-Zarr.
But this much we do know: The track had undergone millions of dollars of improvements and weeks of testing.
Yet positive train control — technology that automatically slows down and stops a speeding train — wasn’t activated, much to the dismay of the NTSB official.
“We have recommended PTC for decades,” Dinh-Zarr said Tuesday. “Unfortunately the deadline was moved farther into the future, and every year that we wait to implement PTC to its fullest extent means that more people will be killed and injured.”
— Five of the train’s cars were being moved Tuesday to the Joint Base Lewis-McChord military base, the Washington Department of Transportation said. The investigation will take place there, said DOT spokeswoman Claudia Bingham Baker.
— Zack Willhoite was identified as one of the three passengers killed in the crash, his employer said. Willhoite was an IT customer support specialist for Pierce Transit, which does not work with trains.
— Investigators were able to learn the train’s speed from a data recorder retrieved from the rear locomotive. But the front locomotive “is more difficult to access,” Dinh-Zarr said.
— PTC was installed in the segment of tracks where the derailment happened, but wasn’t operational yet. The target date to have it working was the spring quarter of 2018, said Geoff Patrick, the spokesman for Sound Transit — which owns tracks where the train derailed.
Mayor: This tragedy could have been avoided
Lakewood Mayor Don Anderson had long worried the rail line passing through his city would one day prove dangerous. He’s thought so since 2013.
“Our community was concerned about the safety of a high-speed passenger rail line coming through an urbanized area on what had been, for years, essentially an abandoned rail route,” Anderson said after the derailment.
Lakewood sued Washington’s Department of Transportation in 2013, saying, in part, that the passenger rail project had not “undergone sufficient environmental review,” according to court documents. The city’s suit was dismissed in 2014, court documents show.
At a town meeting earlier this month, Anderson said it was only a matter of time before the high-speed trains killed someone and asked for more safety improvements.
“Come back when there is that accident, and try to justify not putting in those safety enhancements, or you can go back now and advocate for the money to do it, because this project was never needed and endangers our citizens,” he said, according to CNN affiliate KOMO.
The state Department of Transportation did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment on Anderson’s statements.
The moment of impact
The train left Seattle at 6 a.m. Monday and made two stops before it derailed at around 7:40 a.m. in DuPont, about 20 miles south of Tacoma, Washington.
The train apparently came out of a curve and ran off the track while crossing or approaching an Interstate 5 overpass.
One after another, rail cars derailed off both sides of the track. Some plummeted to the road below, landing on vehicles. One rail car dangled precariously over the highway.
Several people in vehicles struck by train cars were injured, but no one on the road was killed, the sheriff’s office said.
How did this happen?
The NTSB and local authorities have not said what caused the crash. Investigators will likely examine the track, human performance, operations and the mechanics of the train.
Most of the route was graded for a maximum speed of 79 mph, but the speed limit on the curve where the crash occurred is 30 mph, said Rachelle Cunningham of Sound Transit.
Witnesses said they saw the train speeding.
Daniel Konzelman, who was driving on Interstate 5 at the time, said the train and his car were “kind of parallel” and “it was going faster than us.”
PTC, the technology that automatically slows a train if it senses that it’s going too fast or might get into an accident, was installed on the track but was not yet operational, said Geoff Patrick, Sound Transit spokesman.
For PTC to be fully operational, it needs to be installed in trains because a computer system links the train cars and tracks together, he said. PTC was scheduled to be operational for that segment of the track in the second quarter of 2018.
Amtrak has equipped 49% of its locomotives and 67% of its tracks with PTC, according to Federal Railroad Administration data from the second quarter of 2017.
The biggest obstacle to PTC: cost.
In response to a 2008 head-on collision that killed 25 people near Los Angeles, Congress passed a law ordering railroads to adopt PTC by December 2015. But the railroad industry has opposed PTC because of its high cost and technological issues.
As 2015 came to a close, several railroad companies threatened to shut down services unless Congress gave them more time, maintaining the deadline wasn’t realistic given the complex technology.
So Congress extended the deadline, giving companies until December 31, 2018, with extensions up to 2020 if certain requirements are met.
The Association of American Railroads estimated that as of March 2017, freight railroads had spent $8 billion and passenger railroads $3.5 billion to meet the PTC mandate.
“The reason why they’ve been given so many extensions has been money,” said Mary Schiavo, a CNN analyst and a former Department of Transportation inspector general. “It is expensive to put it on tracks all over the country.”
A first day gone awry
The Amtrak Cascades 501 train connects “18 cities along the I-5 corridor including Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, BC, and Eugene, Oregon,” according to an online schedule.
The train service is jointly owned by the Washington and Oregon departments of transportation, although Amtrak contracts to operate the service.
The train was running on track previously used for occasional freight and military transport, the Washington Department of Transportation said. The track had undergone millions of dollars of federally funded improvements and weeks of inspection and testing, the agency said.
Previously, the tracks where the derailment occurred were owned by BNSF. The tracks are now owned by Sound Transit, which managed the track upgrade in preparation for commuter service, the state department of transportation said.
Heebner, who compared the crash to an explosion, said he and his wife Beverly had been looking forward to the route’s inaugural run.
“We knew about this thing. I’d been waiting for it. And we said this is the first run, we’re going to ride that first run,” Heebner told KOMO.
But their adventure was soon marred by carnage.
“There was this body lying there,” Beverly Heebner said. “I mean he hardly had any clothes on, the clothes had just been ripped off of him. And he was obviously dead.”