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NTSB Report Says Inactive Safety Tech Could Have Prevented Deadly Train Wreck

This graphic shows the basic operation of a positive train control (PTC) system.
Government Accountability Office
This graphic shows the basic operation of a positive train control (PTC) system.

A preliminary federal crash report says an automatic safety braking system could have prevented last month's deadly Amtrak derailment near Tacoma, Washington.

Three people died and more than 60 were seriously injured when an Amtrak train going from Seattle to Portland on its inaugural passenger run along a new, faster route took a curve way too fast and hurtled from an overpass onto Interstate 5 below. 

The National Transportation Safety Board preliminary report concludes that an advanced safety system called positive train control would have prevented the December 18 crash by automatically slowing the train when the locomotive engineer failed to do so.

"In this accident, PTC would have notified the engineer of train 501 about the speed reduction for the curve; if the engineer did not take appropriate action to control the train’s speed, PTC would have applied the train brakes to maintain compliance with the speed restriction and to stop the train," the NTSB investigators wrote.

Track owners and Amtrak are in the process of installing positive train control on the Cascades line, but it was not active yet. This point is also being raised in liability lawsuits filed this week against Amtrak.

In another noteworthy detail from the report, the NTSB said it has yet to interview the 55-year-old locomotive engineer or the conductor-in-training with him in the cab because of their serious injuries.

The Washington State Department of Transportation says Amtrak service will not resume on the bypass track where last month's derailment occurred until positive train control is in place.

The NTSB today estimated the damage from the derailment at more than $40 million.

Copyright 2018 Northwest News Network

Correspondent Tom Banse is an Olympia-based reporter with more than three decades of experience covering Washington and Oregon state government, public policy, business and breaking news stories. Most of his career was spent with public radio's Northwest News Network, but now in semi-retirement his work is appearing on other outlets.
Tom Banse
Tom Banse covers national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reports from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events are unfolding. Tom's stories can be found online and heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.