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Speeding Amtrak train derails despite $181 million in track improvements

Passengers on Amtrak Cascades train 501 Monday morning were supposed to be the beneficiaries of a $181 million project aimed at making the nearly four-hour trip from Seattle to Portland 10 minutes faster.

Instead, they became victims, including at least three who died when the train careened off a curve and fell onto Interstate 5 near Dupont, Washington. Dozens were injured.

It was the first trainload of paying passengers after Amtrak shifted its route from a longer, curvier and freight-dominated route hugging the shores of Puget Sound.

Late Monday night, investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board said the data recorder in the train's rear locomotive confirmed that it was traveling about 80 miles per hour in a curved section of track with a posted speed limit of 30 miles per hour. They said they did not know why it was speeding.

“Wow this train is fast,” passenger Chris Karnes of Tacoma tweetedshortly before the crash. “Once you leave Downtown Tacoma it's 79 mph to Portland. We are passing up traffic on I-5.”

“Hey guys, what happened?” a Burlington Northern Santa Fe dispatcher radioed the train right after it derailed.

“We were coming around the corner to take the bridge over I-5 there right north of Nisqually, and we went on the ground,” a member of 501’s crew responded.

“Okay, is everybody okay?” the dispatcher asked.

“I'm still figuring that out,” came the reply from the train. “We got cars everywhere and down onto the highway."

A train-tracking website run by rail enthusiast Sunny Zheng of New York shows Amtrak 501 cruising at the 79 mph speed limit most of the way from Tacoma before hitting a top speed of 81 miles per hour shortly before the crash. 

Zheng told KUOW that his site only grabs GPS data from Amtrak’s train-tracking website every 3 or 4 minutes and that the data can be imprecise.

“The data’s only as good as Amtrak gives,” he said. “Nobody knows what Amtrak does to the data between the GPS transmission on the engine and it actually going on the website.”

Need for speed

For most of its history, the Amtrak Cascades train has been a scenic and relaxing way to travel between Seattle and Portland. But that trip was often delayed by everything from freight trains to mudslides.

Transportation officials spent $181 million to move the passenger trains onto a shorter, straighter route, away from the freight trains and the crumbling coastal bluffs. Monday was the first day of the new line that promised to shave 10 minutes off the leg between Tacoma and Olympia.

The Washington State Department of Transportation spent another $58 million this year to buy eight new Siemens Charger locomotives, which went into service pulling Amtrak Cascades trains in November.

When announcing those new locomotives in June, WSDOT said they featured “next generation” safety equipment, including a “positive train control” system that would automatically stop trains if they were speeding or approaching a dangerous situation, like another train. WSDOT said the positive train control system would be activated throughout the Cascades’ route next year.

Amtrak spokespeople told the Seattle Times Monday that the positive train control equipment was still being tested in the vicinity of the crash and was not in use.

Nationwide, the Federal Railroad Administration said just 24 percent of passenger railroads had the safety equipment by the end of last year.

Sound Transit owns the tracks known as the Pt. Defiance Bypass. The agency paid construction firm Stacy and Witbeck of Alameda, California, to install new rails able to handle fast passenger trains.

Sound Transit spokesperson Geoff Patrick said contractors tested the new tracks and train signals repeatedly this year: Trains made practice runs at various speeds, up to the speed limit of 79 miles an hour. Sound Transit certified that the tracks and signals were safe for fast trains earlier this year.

NTSB investigators said it could take a year or more for them to conclude their investigation.

One silver lining to this disaster is how few passengers were on board — about 80 on a train that can hold six times that many.

For now, Amtrak trains have gone back to using the scenic coastal route along Puget Sound.

Year started with KUOW: 2009