This morning, there was an Amtrak Cascades derailment near DuPont, Washington (several miles south of Tacoma). I knew three people who were passengers on the train; thankfully all survived although two have serious injuries.
There’s a lot of bad information and speculation, and half-truths being passed around in the media (both traditional and social) right now. As someone who was seriously into railroad photography, information, and trivia for several years and is quite familiar with the the railroads and track in question, I thought it might be interesting to share some facts about what did (and didn’t) happen.
- This was Amtrak Train 501, traveling south toward Portland.
- This train was using a new track routing and was the first train with revenue passengers using the new route. This was not the first train to travel on those tracks; prior to today’s new passenger routing there had been months of test trains run over those tracks.
- Speaking of the tracks, they’d recently been rebuilt as part of the Point Defiance Bypass project. It was previously a very old branch line, but was recently upgraded for modern passenger operations. The track should have been in great condition. As one of my friends (who works in the industry) noted:
> Nothing rickety about it. One of my competitors (the project was much too big for us) spent years rebuilding the tracks from the ground up. Even the rocks were new. This was like remodeling your house by tearing it down, ripping out the foundation and starting over from the hole in the ground.
- This is not “high-speed” rail service by any definition used anywhere in the railroad industry. The maximum speed on this line is 79mph.
- The engineer is the one who controls the train’s speed and “drives” the train. The conductor is responsible for the business of the train. If you see anyone, or an article that references the conductor being the one operating the train, you can jump directly to the conclusion that the have absolutely zero clue about how railroads operate.
- There were locomotives on both ends of the train. This train service, the Amtrak Cascades, runs as far north as Vancouver, BC and as far south as Eugene, Oregon. In order to simplify the process of going back the other direction, the trains are not “turned around” but rather are operated from a cab at the other end of the train. Sometimes that is a non-powered control car, and sometimes, as in today’s case, there is an actual powered locomotive at each end of the train. For this sort of operation, it is likely that only the lead locomotive was powered and pulling the train, but we’ll know for sure once the investigation moves along.
- Yes, the mayor of Lakewood, Washington, was recently making headlines about safety risks of the new trains. But if you read about his concerns, he was noting the risk of having 79mph trains running through downtown and multiple crossings, at grade, with roads and pedestrians. Today’s derailment was nowhere near downtown, or any grade crossings. He was advocating for grade separation… you know, bridges. Like the one where today’s derailment happened.
- Speed will be an issue in the investigation. The bridge at the derailment site has a 30mph speed limit for this sort of train. There are reports that the train was at 81mph shortly before the bridge. Whether it slowed down, or why it didn’t will be revealed in the investigation.
- If this was a case of excessive speed, one might wonder if technology could have prevented this. It could have. Positive Train Control (PTC) systems have the ability to monitor a train’s speed and automatically slow the train if it exceeds defined thresholds. PTC is relatively new in the United States and is operational in some areas, but not others. It sounds like PTC systems were not in place on this line. Why they weren’t in place on a brand new line serving passenger rail is an interesting question, the answer to which will likely be explored in the investigation.
Of course we think of those killed or injured in these sorts of incidents and we hope to learn to prevent future derailments. Let’s try to do that with facts, rather than rumors and speculation.
Update 12/22/2017: One of my friends who was on the train wrote a blog post sharing his adventure.