Amtrak Service Returning to Point Defiance Bypass

Written by Marybeth Luczak, Executive Editor

Amtrak will resume Cascades service on the Point Defiance Bypass between Seattle, Wash., and Portland, Ore., on Nov. 18, nearly four years after an overspeed derailment stopped service there.

On Dec. 18, 2017, Amtrak Cascades train 501, on its inaugural Bypass run, derailed on an overpass as it entered a 30-mph curve at approximately 78 mph. The lead locomotive and four passenger cars fell onto Interstate 5 where they struck eight vehicles. Three of the 77 train passengers were killed, and 57 passengers and crew members aboard the train and eight people on the highway were injured. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) announced on May 21, 2019 that failure to provide an effective mitigation method for a hazardous curve and inadequate training of a locomotive engineer led to the derailment.

Amtrak reported on Nov. 9, 2021, that service is returning following “intensive system testing, crew qualifications and safety certification” in partnership with host railroad Sound Transit (Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority) and the Washington State Department of Transportation.

Since the derailment, Amtrak said that all involved agencies have worked to:
• Activate positive train control (PTC). All passenger rail corridors in Washington, including the Point Defiance Bypass, have train control technology.
• Develop and implement an Amtrak Safety Management System (SMS), which “includes policies and processes to proactively identify and mitigate risks, enhanced reporting standards, expanded crew training, and redesigned safety training courses to create an improved safety culture and drive safety performance.”
• Implement step-down speed restrictions. “Working with Sound Transit, progressive speed reductions were implemented to ensure trains operate at required speeds across the route,” Amtrak reported.
• Upgrade simulator programs. “High-fidelity simulators with route specific details and conditions were utilized to greatly increase training opportunities on the route,” according to Amtrak.
• Conduct extensive public outreach on railroad safety. “Our partners and Amtrak conducted outreach in communities surrounding the Point Defiance Bypass, including DuPont, Lakewood, Tacoma, and Joint Base Lewis-McChord, prior to the return of service,” the railroad said.

Amtrak, Sound Transit and WSDOT “have implemented or are continuing to pursue all safety recommendations set forth by the NTSB,” Amtrak said.

In 2019, the NTSB issued a total of 26 safety recommendations to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), WSDOT, Oregon Department of Transportation, Sound Transit and the United States Department of Defense. In addition, the NTSB reiterated three recommendations to the FRA (download report below).

Starting Nov. 18, a total of eight trains—including Amtrak Cascades and Coast Starlight—will use the Bypass daily, “with additional trains added in the months ahead as COVID restrictions ease,” Amtrak said. The first Amtrak Cascades train using the Bypass will leave Seattle at 7:22 a.m. and arrive in Tacoma at 8:08 a.m. The first northbound train from Oregon will leave Eugene at 5:30 a.m. and Portland at 8:20 a.m., arriving in Tacoma at 10:54 a.m. In addition, operations in Tacoma will move to the new Tacoma Dome Station, near Sound Transit’s Sounder commuter rail and light rail stations on East 25th Street.

“Amtrak is continuously improving safety for the benefit of our customers, employees, and the communities we serve,” Amtrak President Stephen Gardner said. “We are ready to safely resume service on the Bypass consistent with the steps required by our host railroad, Sound Transit; the Federal Railroad Administration; and our own Safety Management System.”

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