Amtrak 501 Disaster: Piecing It Together

The NTSB has started releasing preliminary information about the circumstances surrounding the Amtrak 501 crash.  Early information usually comes from easily verifiable sources like video and audio recording.

This KIRO 7 article does a good job of explaining NTSB findings in an investigation that is now expected to take 12-24 months:

  • Inward-facing video with audio captured the crew’s actions and their conversations. A forward-facing video with audio captured conditions in front of the locomotive as well as external sounds.
  • The crew was not observed to use any personal electronic devices during the timeframe reviewed.
  • About six seconds prior to the derailment, the engineer made a comment regarding an over speed condition.
  • The engineer’s actions were consistent with the application of the locomotive’s brakes just before the recording ended. It did not appear the engineer placed the brake handle in emergency-braking mode.
  • The recording ended as the locomotive was tilting and the crew was bracing for impact.
  • The final recorded speed of the locomotive was 78 mph.

The full human performance and human factors reports will take into account many more issues, but operator distraction is an obvious checkbox in transit disasters.

The engineer’s comment regarding the train’s speed and last-second braking may be consistent with questions raised about the Amtrak crew’s potentially inadequate training and lack of positive train control, which could have automatically slowed the train down from the 80-mile per hour pace prior to crashing.  This King 5 article discussing training also has a good video model of the crash.

Mass transit cases are inherently political at the local and often national level.  This KIRO 7 article explains how a WSDOT employee promised the Lakewood City Council–11 months before the crash–that the trains would have positive train control “before we start service.”  Of course, WSDOT has backtracked on that promise, releasing a statement that reads in part:

“David Smelser’s comment about PTC being operational at the time service started on the Point Defiance Bypass was based on the best information he had at the time. If the litmus test is that PTC needs to be fully activated to operate passenger rail service, then there would not be any passenger rail service statewide and in many areas of the country.”

Amtrak’s CEO reported that the company expects to have positive train control activated in the northwest before the deadline imposed by the federal government–the end of 2018.

This is litigation-speak.  They are saying that the standard of care for safe train operation is only the bare minimum of what the federal government mandates across the country.  That’s a lousy argument.  The initial deadline for positive train control was 2015.  It was extended after Amtrak and other common carriers threatened to shut down service.  As this article reports, “Critics [of the extension] have complained the agreement will result in a “blanket five-year” extension for railroads to install technology that has been touted as a life-saver that can prevent deadly train accidents. ”

We should be entitled to safety standards that meet our community’s expectations.

Andrew Ackley