What Causes Amtrak Trains To Derail

Photo: AP
Photo: AP

The scene Monday along Interstate 5 in Washington was stunning: train cars dangling over the freeway, vehicles underneath crushed to bits, survivors who were given a commemorative lanyard for the ride left screaming and having to kick out windows to escape. A train along Amtrak’s Cascades route, somewhere between the cities of Lakewood and Olympia and hours into its inaugural ride, abruptly ended in what appears to be one of the worst wrecks for Amtrak in years. By the afternoon, the casualty toll stood at six dead, more than 75 hospitalized.

Advertisement

Authorities began the long process Monday of trying to piece together what caused nearly all of the Cascades Train 501 cars—carrying 78 passengers and seven crew members—to jump the track and onto I-5. The National Transportation Safety Board also sent out a team of investigators, but results of the agency’s findings won’t be known for months.

Advertisement

The reason why trains derail has become a common question in recent years, as the number of very violent crashes has seemingly continued apace, following the deadly 2015 Amtrak crash in Philadelphia that killed eight and left dozens wounded. Amtrak in particular has seen an uptick in derailments.

An official briefed on the investigation into what happened in Washington told the Associated Press it’s initially believed the train may’ve struck something before derailing, but rail experts who spoke to Jalopnik on Monday said that authorities will likely be looking at speed as a factor.

“It’s becoming more and more apparent that speed was an issue here,” said William Keppen, a rail expert who worked as an engineer of the freight line Burlington Northern for 13 years. Once overhead images of the crash emerged, that seemed to become more obvious, he said.

Keppen pointed out a turn just before the derailment of what appeared to be a roughly 5-to-7 degree curve. That, he said, “probably had a speed restriction on it.”

Advertisement

“In other words,” he said, “on a curve or a bridge … you have a permanent speed restriction.” (UPDATE: Officials with the agency that owns the track, Sound Transit, told local news outlets the speed limit in the curve is 30 mph.)

The train was designed to carry speeds of 79 mph, but was clocked at 81.1 mph moments before the crash, according to transitdocs.com, which can track Amtrak train locations and speeds using the company’s train tracker app.

Advertisement

Steven Ditmeyer, a former official at the Federal Railroad Administration, told Jalopnik that speed “might” have played a role. The roughly 80 mph it was traveling at is standard for the Amtrak train.

Advertisement

“What I don’t know is what the speed limit that the railroad had imposed on the track [at the curve],” he said.

Ditmeyer noted that Amtrak has conducted extensive testing on the route throughout the year, so it’s unlikely that any procedural issues lead to the crash. That leaves a few possibilities, he said.

Advertisement

“The quesiton is whether there was overspeed whether the train was going faster than it was authorized to go,” he said, “whether there was any kind of a track problem, or whether there was any kind of a problem with the bridge, or a problem with the wheel sets on the train.”

Amtrak has a technology called Positive Train Control, which is designed to automatically maintain a train’s speed based on the conditions. By law, the technology is supposed to be installed on all passenger trains by 2018, but that deadline has been pushed back by rail agencies who’ve said it’s become complicated to implement, reports Reuters.

Advertisement

Amtrak’s co-chief executive, Richard Anderson, wouldn’t speculate to reporters about what the cause of Monday’s crash may’ve been, but he did confirm that Positive Train Control wasn’t installed on the newly rebuilt passenger tracks where the latest crash occurred. The tracks are part of a $181 million project to improve service between Portland and Seattle.

As one railroad investigator put it, that’d be a tragedy in and of itself. John Hiatt, a railroad investigator, told CNN that the technology is like an “angel on our shoulders” for train engineers.

Advertisement

“If there was no Positive Train Control in effect there, then shame on them,” he said.

Photo:AP
Photo:AP
Advertisement

Previous Crashes

One factor in previous crashes has been the country’s lack of resources for rail transportation, leaving Amtrak in a position where it’s constantly fighting legislators who’d prefer to strip it of funding. So, while it posts record ridership numbers, Amtrak’s budget. is constantly getting routed by Republicans who’d prefer to see its government subsidies diminished.

Advertisement

Years back, mechanical problems led to what’s considered the first major accident of the Amtrak system, according to the Washington Post, which cites a book by University of North Dakota mechanical engineering professor George Bibel in its own exploration in 2015 of what causes Amtrak derailments.

As Bibel put it, derailments can be caused by just about anything:

Poor train handling, incorrectly set track switches, unsecured cars on a hill, shifted loads, vandalism, or obstructions on the track are among the human causes of derailments. Derailments can also be caused by flash floods, avalanches, rock slides, and high winds.

Advertisement

With Monday’s crash, it’s likely that infrastructure wasn’t a key role. The rail line was new, after all. It’s almost certain the crew knew what to expect with their routes, so it’s unlikely crew fatigue played a role—though Keppen cited it as being an unquestionable source of other crashes.

(The NTSB earlier this fall, as an example, released a report showing that engineers in recent New York City-area crashes had undiagnosed sleep apnea.)

Advertisement

“I’ve been dealing with the industry on human factor issues for years and they’ve been, I would say, relatively intransigent in dealing with it,” he said.

In Washington, with the casualty count as high as it already is, questions are going to loom for months over what Amtrak could’ve done ahead of time and what happened with the engineers moments before the crash. Late Monday, officials near the scene still couldn’t disclose a death toll.

Advertisement

“I don’t think anybody know that yet,” Michael Courts, mayor of the city of DuPont, told CNN. “They have not gotten into the depths of the train or lifted the cars.”

Senior Reporter, Jalopnik/Special Projects Desk

Share This Story

Get our newsletter

DISCUSSION

Saddening news, especially just before Christmas. That said, the overall issue is pretty easy to describe: this so-called first world country’s railway system is outmatched even by India. As a European temporarily living in the US, for me it’s ridiculous to see to which low standard (other than axle load) this type of transportation is designed and maintained here.

The evidence we see here is probably enough to determine the cause of the accident: the driver was trying to catch up some of the massive delay the train had already built up at the start of its trip early in the morning by going as fast as he was allowed to on a stretch was not very familiar yet (other than maybe 1-2 instructor runs). Hence possibly unfamiliar with its visual landmarks, he probably overlooked the speed limit indicator for a turn no other country in the world would have retained in a freshly upgraded main line outside of a major station. Adding insult to injury because of systematic incompetence, there no decently-functioning train control system on said line that just reopened to revenue service with significantly increased speed limits. As a result of this, the conclusion will be that the train entered the curve at a speed it had no chance of making it through at. It will probably be blamed on the driver and no further action will be taken.

In Europe, such events became almost impossible in revenue service and have become extremely uncommon even during commission tests. The only such event I recall in the last few decades is the Eckwersheim derailment in France in 2015 when, during commissioning trials of a completely new *real* high speed line conducted at the revenue service top speed +10%, the driver started braking too late at the end of it. As a result, he didn’t manage to slow it down from 220 mph to 110 mph for the 100 mph curve that connects it line to the regular main line. Entering the curve at 165 mph, the train derailed at 151 mph and crashed over & into a canal, leaving 11 test train staff dead.

Such accidents will continue to happen in the US if inadequate infrastructure is retained and badly upgraded (if at all) due to systematic underfunding or even sheer laziness. The size of the US and long commuter distances along trunk routes (Interstates) in enormous metropolitan areas are ideal preconditions for creating and operating well-functioning and fast mass transport systems. Having such things happening in the US and doing nothing to meaningfully improve the situation should be a national embarrassment, just like the way school buses are built here while the rest of the world went through 70 years of technological advances.