The National Transportation Safety Board interviewed the engineer and a conductor last week involved in the Amtrak train derailed in Dupont, Washington on December 18. Both had just recently recovered from injuries sustained in the crash, which killed three and injured dozens of others. On Thursday, the NTSB revealed part of what the Amtrak employees said, but the statements prompt more questions than answers about the wreck.
Here’s part of what the engineer told the NTSB, according to an NTSB release:
The engineer, a 55-year-old male, was hired by Amtrak in 2004 as a conductor and then promoted to locomotive engineer in 2013.
In the five weeks preceding the derailment, the engineer had qualified on the Point Defiance Bypass section of track following the completion of seven to 10 observational trips in the locomotive as well as three trips operating the equipment, two northbound and one southbound.
The engineer said he felt rested at the start of his shift.
The engineer recalled that as the train passed milepost 15.5 it was traveling about 79 mph.
The engineer told investigators that he was aware that the curve with the 30 mph speed restriction was at milepost 19.8, and that he had planned to initiate braking about one mile prior to the curve.
The engineer said that he saw mileposts 16 and 17 but didn’t recall seeing milepost 18 or the 30 mph advance speed sign, which was posted two miles ahead of the speed-restricted curve.
The engineer said that he did see the wayside signal at milepost 19.8 (at the accident curve) but mistook it for another signal, which was north of the curve.
He said that as soon as he saw the 30 mph sign at the start of the curve, he applied brakes.
Seconds later, the train derailed as it entered the curve.
The engineer said that he didn’t feel that having a qualifying conductor in the locomotive with him was a distraction.
The engineer also said that he would not have gotten behind the throttle if he had any reservations about his readiness to operate the train.
So, to recap, the engineer had been on three practice runs along that portion of the track before, and yet still managed to miss the mile 18 milepost, shortly after which he should’ve started braking ahead of the curve. The train was on its inaugural run over the Point Defiance Bypass, a $149 million expansion of rail service from Tacoma to DuPont.
Judging by the latest release, investigators seem to be probing whether having a qualifying conductor in the locomotive was enough to distract the engineer, though the conductor himself said they didn’t talk much and he spent most of the ride looking over paperwork.
The qualifying conductor, a 48-year-old male, was hired by Amtrak in 2010 as an assistant conductor and was promoted to conductor in 2011.
At start of shift, he said he took part in the job briefing conducted by the conductor and the engineer. They went over general track bulletins and other items.
The qualifying conductor told investigators that he felt rested and alert at the start of his shift. He had never worked with the engineer before. He told investigators that the engineer appeared alert during the job briefing and while operating the train.
The qualifying conductor told investigators that there was minimal conversation between himself and the engineer during the trip. Instead he said he spent time looking at his paperwork to help learn the territory.
The conductor also supplied this terrifying detail:
Just prior to the derailment, the qualifying conductor said he looked down at his copies of the general track bulletins. He then heard the engineer say or mumble something. He then looked up and sensed that the train was becoming “airborne.”
Investigators say their work may not be done for another year or two. Criminal charges were filed against the engineer in a similar crash in Philadelphia in 2015 after investigators determined that the engineer lost track of where he was and accelerated when he should’ve braked, though those charges were later dismissed by a judge, who ruled the crash an accident. That case is still pending.