Last month Amtrak 501 crashed near Tacoma, Washington, killing three passengers and injuring dozens more. The derailment happened on a sharp curve which was part of a new, faster route that was being introduced by Amtrak that morning. The speed limit in that section was 30mph but the train was going roughly 80mph as it approached. The question ever since the crash has been: How could this happen?
Sunday CNN published a report indicating that engineers and conductors warned Amtrak prior to the crash that their training for the new route was inadequate. When a new route is introduced, engineers are supposed to receive plenty of opportunities to familiarize themselves with it. That means taking the same route several times to observe the route and also getting a few opportunities to operate the train on the route with supervision. But according to this report, that process was rushed so much that there were complaints prior to the crash.
Engineers and conductors had safety concerns, citing rushed and “totally inadequate” training which left them feeling dangerously unprepared for the new route, according to multiple sources, including several directly involved in the training. Crew members traditionally train on new routes to familiarize themselves with the signs, terrain and other physical characteristics which vary from route to route.
Some training runs were performed at night, with as many as six or more crew members stuffed into cars with just three seats, which meant some trainees rode backwards, in the dark, the sources said. Engineers felt they did not get enough practice runs at the controls and could not properly see to familiarize themselves with the route.
Adding to the training concerns, the new locomotives for the maiden run were unfamiliar to many of the crew members up until the brief training runs, the sources said…
Train accident investigator John Hiatt says it is clear to him the engineer had lost track of his location on the route, and blames the problems with training and preparation, at least in part, for the crash. Hiatt is an investigator with the Bremseth Law Firm of Minnetonka, Minnesota, which has filed a lawsuit on behalf of another Amtrak employee.
“Training is money, and in this case it looks to me like they were worried about money and time and safety was number three, at best, on their list,” Hiatt said.
Running the trains at night seems like a poor way to help someone learn the geography of a new route and having people face backward during the training run makes even less sense. The engineer who was controlling the train when it crashed told the NTSB he was aware that a 30mph section of the track was coming up but claims he didn’t see a mile-marker and a subsequent speed limit sign that indicated he was approaching the curve:
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 had done 7-10 training runs but only 3 at the controls. Only one of those runs was headed southbound, the direction the train was heading when it derailed. The engineer also told the NTSB he and the qualifying conductor riding with him were not talking during the trip. Instead, he said he was looking at paperwork related to the new route just prior to the crash. As for the qualifying conductor, he claims he heard the engineer mumble something and when he looked up from some paperwork he felt the train go “airborne.”
In this video report, CNN points out that Amtrak’s “safety culture” had been judged a failure by the NTSB just a month prior to the Amtrak 501 crash. That assessment was the final word on a previous deadly crash which took place in 2016.