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Railroad Veteran Shares Lessons From The Amtrak Derailment

Elaine Thompston
AP Photo
The Amtrak derailment near DuPont, Wash., on Dec. 18, 2017

Experts are still searching for lessons from an Amtrak derailment in Pierce County that killed three people on Dec. 18, 2017. 

Some blame the lack of a computerized safety system called positive train control, which was not yet operational on the route. Others question the design of the just-opened track, where the train was making its inaugural trip with passengers. 

Thomas White has a rare perspective as a 49-year veteran of the railroad industry and someone who helped design the route where the train derailed, called the Point Defiance Bypass

He says experts risk taking the wrong lessons from the disaster. Specifically, he views the discussion as too fixated on technology as the solution and not focussed enough on human elements like employee education. 

White, who lives in Mountlake Terrace, spent years as a train dispatcher -- the equivalent of an air traffic controller -- in the Northwest. He helped design the Point Defiance Bypass first as an employee of the Burlington Northern Railroad Company and then as a private consultant for the Washington State Department of Transportation. 

He spoke with KNKX reporter Will James. Here are some highlights from their conversation: 

Positive train control is designed to stop accidents like this, in which a train is speeding and the engineer fails to hit the brakes. What would you say to someone who is frustrated that positive train control was not in place to slow the train before it derailed?

"It wasn't in place because the bugs weren't worked out yet for that piece of track. They don't expect it to be until later this year. But everybody has to keep in mind that the railroads have been operating without this system with a safety record that way exceeds automobiles, is close to airplanes. So it's partially a matter of it doesn't exist and it's partially a matter of, I think, too much dependence on technological systems rather than the railroad occupation being second nature, like it was decades ago." 

If technology is not the solution, what is?

"The solution is positive train control plus extremely experienced employees. I worked with a programmer who developed expert systems. He had a mantra that expert systems were not intended to be a system replacing experts but rather a tool for an expert." 

The Point Defiance Bypass route includes a curve where the engineer is required to slow the train from about 80 miles per hour to 30. Does that kind of curve raise alarms among track designers? 

"Not at all. Don't forget, this was designed in 1897. There was no design involved in that curve. And, to me, it's just everyday railroading. There's probably dozens of speed restrictions that drastic throughout the country and they're navigated safely every day. Based on what I've read the engineer said, he was lost." 

What does that tell you about how and why this happened?

"I can't make any official opinion, but if somebody says they're ready to go and then is lost -- and that's how they get qualified. First they observe. And then they tell their supervisor, 'I'm ready to be qualified.' And then they get a check ride. Actually, he got three. So, if a guy is lost right after being qualified, then probably overconfidence." 

How has training in the railroad industry changed? 

"Largely it's training rather than education. Training means you're learning specific tasks for a specific job. It's task-oriented, whereas education is knowledge oriented. For example, when I started as a train dispatcher, the guy that I apprenticed to said, 'Okay, you're going to be in charge of that railroad. You need to know what everybody out there is doing. You need to learn to run an engine. You need to learn how the track is fixed, how the signals are fixed. You need to know all of it. You don't need to be an expert, but you need to know how it's done.' And that's not the case anymore." 

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.