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Amtrak derailment: Train was traveling at 80 mph in 30-mph zone

DUPONT, Wash. — The Amtrak train that derailed Monday in Washington state was traveling 80 mph in a 30-mph zone, National Transportation Safety Board board member T. Bella Dinh-Zarr said.

It’s too early to tell why the train had been traveling at that speed, she said. But NTSB investigators arrived Monday to DuPont, where a passenger train had run off the tracks, killing at least three people and injuring more than 100 others. They’ll spend their first full day at the scene Tuesday.

The Amtrak Cascades 501 was making its first trip on a new service route between Seattle and Portland when most of its train cars derailed, tumbling several of them off the Interstate 5 overpass with rush hour traffic below, authorities said.

All the deaths were contained to the train, said Ed Troyer, the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office spokesman.

Latest developments:

 Investigators were able to get the information about the speed from a data recorder retrieved from the rear locomotive. But the front locomotive “is more difficult to access,” said NTSB’s Dinh-Zarr.

— The train’s engineer has not yet been interviewed, but the NTSB hopes to have all interviews completed “within the next day or so,” Dinh-Zarr said.

— Amtrak President & Co-CEO Richard Anderson said “Positive Train Control” was not activated on the tracks when the derailment happened. PTC is a technology that automatically slows down, and eventually stops, a train if it senses it is going too fast.

— 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 spring quarter of 2018, said Geoff Patrick, spokesperson of Sound Transit, which owns tracks where the train derailed.

— More than 100 people were taken to hospitals in Pierce and Thurston counties, DuPont Fire Chief Larry Creekmore said. Ten people were seriously injured and one was life-flighted to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, said Marc Magliari, Amtrak spokesperson.

When it derailed

The train, which had been the first trip on a new service route, had departed at 6 a.m. Monday and had made two stops before the crash. The Amtrak train derailed about 7:40 a.m. in DuPont, about 20 miles south of Tacoma, near the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.

Apparently, the train came out of a curve and ran off the track while crossing or approaching an open trestle over I-5. The following rail cars derailed in a jumble on both sides of the track, with some falling to the road below and landing on vehicles and one rail car dangling precariously over the highway.

Several motorists in vehicles that were struck by the fallen train cars suffered injuries, but there were no fatalities among people in those vehicles, the sheriff’s office said. Five cars and two semi-trucks were involved in the crash, said Washington State Patrol spokeswoman Brooke Bova at a news conference.

There were 86 people on board at the time, said Magliari.

How did this happen?

The NTSB and local authorities have not said what caused the crash, but questions were quickly raised about the train’s speed as it hit a curve.

Most of the route was graded for a maximum speed of 79 mph; the speed limit on the curve where the crash occurred is 30 mph, said Rachelle Cunningham with Sound Transit.

Witnesses said they saw the train traveling at a fast speed.

Chris Karnes, a passenger on the train and chairman of the Pierce Transit Community Transportation Advisory Group, said the train was moving at a “pretty good pace” — roughly 70 to 80 mph, judging from the fact the train was passing cars on the highway — when it derailed.

Daniel Konzelman, who was driving on Interstate 5 at the time, also said the train and his car were “kind of parallel” and “it was going faster than us.”

An early look indicates speed might have been an issue, said Russ Quimby, a former NTSB safety investigator, and CNN analyst Mary Schiavo, former Department of Transportation inspector general.

PTC, which is a technology that automatically slows down and stops a train if it senses that it’s going too fast or might get into an accident, had been installed on the track, but wasn’t operational yet, said Geoff Patrick, spokesperson of Sound Transit. For PTC to be fully operational, it needs to be installed in trains, because a computer system knits both the train cars and tracks together, he said. The target date for having the PTC operational for that segment of the track had been second quarter of 2018.

“The system is still being implemented,” Patrick said. “It is not operational yet.”

Investigators will likely look at several factors including the track, human performance, operations and mechanics of the train.

A first day goes awry

According to an online schedule, the 501 train connects “18 cities along the I-5 corridor including Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, BC, and Eugene, Oregon.” 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 in a news release. 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 release said.

Amtrak service south of Seattle was temporarily suspended. Service from Seattle to points north and east was continuing to operate, Amtrak said.

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