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Hearing On Amtrak Derailment Focuses On Responsibility

Elaine Thompson
AP Photo
An Amtrak train spilled off an I-5 overpass near DuPont on Dec. 18, 2017

Federal investigators have begun a two-day hearing into last year's fatal Amtrak Cascades derailment in Pierce County.

National Transportation Safety Board members and staff are seeking insight into the causes of the Dec. 18 accident, which left three passengers dead when a train plunged off an overpass near DuPont and into I-5 traffic.

Investigators say the train was traveling nearly 50 miles an hour above the speed limit when it hit a curve and derailed. The accident happened during the inaugural run of a what was supposed to be a faster route between Seattle and Portland.

Questions posed Tuesday to an Amtrak representative, as well as local and federal transit officials, focused on the safety of the curve, where engineers are supposed to slow down from around 80 miles per hour to 30.

Representatives of Sound Transit and the Washington State Department of Transportation traveled to Washington, D.C., for the hearing.

At one point, NTSB member Earl Weener asked a panel of local and federal transit officials who was responsibile for ensuring the safety of the curve. 

When no one answered for 10 seconds, he said, "That's what I was afraid of." 

Ron Pate, the state Department of Transportation's rail, freight, and ports director, said an engineering consultant designed the route, which was then signed off on by "many parties." 

"So a lot of people had a chance, but nobody really stood up?" Weener said.

Questions also focused on Amtrak's training procedures for engineers learning a new route. 

The train's engineer told investigators he was "planning for the curve," but did not see signs along the track signaling it was approaching, according to an NTSB report.

With the curve suddenly before him, the engineer "called out an expletive, and three seconds later said, 'We're dead,'" before the train spilled off the tracks, the report said.

The engineer had operated the train only once southbound along that stretch of track while training on the new route, according to the report.

The 55-year-old engineer told investigators he was less familiar with the Siemens Charger locomotive than other locomotives, but he was comfortable.  He was "getting a feel for the gauges and an understanding where to look," the report said.

"The only thing I can think of is the locomotive has different visibility from the front and the gauges take your eyes off the window," the engineer is quoted in the report as saying. "In thinking about it, the only thing I can think of is that I was possibly quickly looking at a gauge or something and missing the sign." 

Before the train departed, the engineer told a conductor "that this trip was a learning experience for him,"  the report said. 

Amtrak Vice President Mike DeCataldo said at the hearing that the railroad has put stricter training and testing procedures in place.

Amtrak now requires engineers who are training on a new route to make at least four round trips before he or she is considered qualified, with the possibility for more trips if local conditions require it, DeCataldo said.

"The desire here to is to make sure the operating crews fully understand the territory that they're going to be operating over," he said. "It's going to be driven by competency, not by a time limit or a set number of runs."

The track did not have a computerized safety system called "positive train control" in place. The system can automatically slow a train that is traveling too fast. 

The NTSB hearing continues Wednesday. An NTSB spokesman said a final report on the accident could take as long as 18 months. 

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.