The National Transportation Safety Board says the train that derailed Monday as it made its way from Seattle to Portland was going more that twice the posted speed limit when it jumped the tracks on a bridge over a busy interstate highway.
“Preliminary indications are that the train was traveling 80 miles per hour in a 30 mile per hour track,” NTSB member Bella Dinh-Zarr said Tuesday.
Three people where killed and more than 100 injured when one of two engines and 12 cars derailed, many of them tumbling onto a busy interstate highway below.
As rain poured down Tuesday, cranes moved in to clear the damaged cars from Interstate 5, one of the busiest highways on the West Coast, which authorities said may remain closed for several days.
NTSB officials said that investigators had not spoken with the train crew and they were uncertain whether the crew was familiar with the speed limits in the zone. The train was making its inaugural run on a 14.5-mile stretch of recently refurbished track.
Two of the three people who died Monday were identified as Zack Willhoite and Jim Hamre, both train buffs who were eager to be aboard the inaugural run of the Amtrak train over the new route.
If the automatic braking system known as positive train control (PTC) had been operating, sensors along the track bed would have slowed the train before it entered the left-hand curve where it derailed, and the fatal wreck could have been avoided, investigators said.
“It can prevent collision,” said Deborah A.P. Hersman, former chairman of the NTSB and now head of the National Safety Council. “This technology has been proven. And each year we delay the mandate to put it on these routes is another year that passengers and communities are at risk.”
Congress initially took action after a 2008 collision of a commuter train and a Union Pacific freight locomotive that killed 25 people and injured 135 in Chatsworth, Calif. At that time, Congress mandated that all railroads have PTC installed by the end of 2015.
Though the Federal Railroad Administration pressed the railroads to complete the PTC system, the railroads told Congress in 2015 that PTC technology was too complex and the $14.7 billion cost to equip freight and commuter lines was prohibitive.
Congress, which has received $56 million in campaign contributions from the railroads since 1990, relented. The lawmakers voted to extend the PTC deadline until 2018 and left open the possibility they might grant a further extension until 2020.
“The shameful part, the disappointing part, is that positive train control should have been implemented nationwide long ago, and it hasn’t been,” Dinh-Zarr said Tuesday. “That’s one reason people have been losing their lives.”
SoundTransit, which owns the track on which the Amtrak train was operating Monday, planned to comply with the congressional mandate and install PTC sensors next year. Although Amtrak trains are equipped with PTC, the Washington State Department of Transportation said the necessary trackside sensors to enable it were not yet in place.
“It is now the end of 2017 and we still don’t have positive train control protecting people on these passenger routes,” Hersman said. “And there really is no reason not to move forward with positive train control.”
Willhoite was an IT specialist at Pierce Transit, which said in a statement: “He will be sincerely missed. Our thoughts are with Zack’s family, as well as the families of the other victims, during this very difficult time.”
The death of Hamre, a former Washington State Department of Transportation employee, was confirmed by the group All About Washington, on whose board he served. Hamre posted photos on Facebook on Friday of the Amtrak train pulling into a station on the old coastal scenic route where the train used to run.
Both men were passionate advocates for passenger railroad.
“Jim was among the country’s most respected and effective rail advocates, and a good friend and mentor to me,” said Rail Passengers Association President Jim Mathews. “Both Jim and Zack have been advocates of transit and passenger rail for decades, and we can’t thank them enough for their work.”
Amtrak was running what railroaders call a push-pull operation, with a locomotive at either end of the 12-passenger cars. Dinh-Zarr said the data recorder had been retrieved from the engine that was at the tail end of the train.
A second data recorder, this one from the lead locomotive, was found Tuesday, and from that investigators were able to determine that the emergency break was automatically engaged and not activated by the engineer. Surveillance cameras from onboard the train are being sent to laboratories to try to extract video footage, Dinh-Zarr said.
By Tuesday afternoon, crews had removed two train cars, including one that was dangling from the overpass, and were in the process of removing at least two others to a site where the NTSB would continue the investigation, the Washington State Department of Transportation said.
Claudia Baker, another transportation spokeswoman, said that until the train cars are removed the agency won’t know whether there is damage to the highway. But she said that it is a possibility that damage to the road could extend the lanes closure.
An Amtrak locomotive weighs about 200 tons, while passenger cars are about 65 tons.
The wreck left locomotives and rail cars scattered — several of them on the highway below, one tucked under the bridge it was to cross, others beside the railroad embankment and one dangling from the bridge with an end resting on the rail car that had been in front of it.
At least five vehicles passing below on I-5 — including two tractor-trailers — were heavily damaged as the rail cars from Amtrak Cascades train 501 fell from above.
There were 80 passengers, three crew members and two cafe car workers aboard the train. The 100 people police said were taken to the hospital reflected that some of the injured were traveling in vehicles on I-5.
The NTSB’s lead investigator is Ted Turpin, who also worked on the 2015 Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia and was the lead investigator for the Long Island Rail Road train crash at New York’s Atlantic Terminal this year.
NTSB officials will spend Tuesday making sure they have all the photos and doing a 3-D scan on those rail cars to understand how the damage occurred and how people may have been injured.
They will document the external and internal parts of the train and walk the tracks to determine whether there are any track issues. They also will interview survivors and crew members.
As the investigation continues, they will collect records, including those of the test runs before Monday’s inaugural trip. If needed, they may subpoena phone records of crew members to determine whether they were distracted.
“They will want to rule out any mechanical or equipment defects first,” Hersman said. “They have the recorder, and the recorder does tell them things like whether or not the brakes were applied.”
Interviewing the engineering crew and anyone who was in the locomotive cab will be critical to understand whether the crew saw the speed limit signs that are posted along the route.
“The recorders, the interviews, the physical evidence on the scene, it all will help paint the complete picture for the investigators,” she said.
The Amtrak train was on its first run on tracks that had been rebuilt at a cost of $181 million, using a bypass and avoiding a more scenic but slower passage along the coastline. The new service is said to save 10 minutes in travel time between Seattle and Portland.
The new Amtrak Cascades service is part of an expansion of Amtrak intercity passenger rail service that includes station upgrades and expansions and the addition of new locomotives. Washington and Oregon jointly operate the Amtrak Cascades intercity passenger service. Officials celebrated the opening of the Tacoma station along the rebuilt route with a ribbon-cutting Friday.