Amtrak Empire Builder Derailment Investigation Under Way, Montana Track Reopens (Updated Sept. 29)

Written by Marybeth Luczak, Executive Editor

Amtrak’s Empire Builder train 7/27 traveling westbound from Chicago to Seattle/Portland on Sept. 25 derailed near Joplin, Mont., at 3:55 p.m. MT. The passenger train was traveling between 75-78 mph, below the 79 mph speed limit, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reported on Sept. 27 during its first media briefing.

Three people died as a result of the accident and dozens were injured. The train, comprising two locomotives and 10 cars, eight of which derailed, was carrying approximately 141 passengers and 17 crew members, according to Amtrak. The derailment occurred on BNSF tracks approximately 3 miles west of Joplin, which is about 100 miles north of Great Falls, in the vicinity of Buelow, Mont.

NTSB is the lead agency in the investigation. Its team—headed by Investigator-In-Charge Jim Southworth, who has more than 25 years of experience in rail investigations—consists of 14 investigators with expertise in rail operations; mechanical; human performance; track; signal systems; recorders; survival factors; and family assistance. Other parties include Amtrak, BNSF, the Federal Railroad Administration; the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and SMART unions; and representatives from the Volpe Transportation Center, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, who are analyzing the crashworthiness aspects of the passenger cars, according to NTSB Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg. The NTSB team is expected to be on scene in Montana for at least seven days; a preliminary report will be issued within 30 days.

During the Sept. 27 briefing, Landsberg said that NTSB is analyzing the Amtrak locomotive black box recorder. Additionally, its experts are studying forward-facing camera footage, frame-by-frame, from the Amtrak locomotive as well as from a BNSF train, which ran through the area about 80 minutes prior to the accident. The derailment, he said, occurred on a “gradual right-hand curve,” prior to reaching the switch for a siding.

Landsberg said that BNSF had conducted a track inspection there on Sept. 23, and advised NTSB “they are conducting approximately two track inspections every week on this section of track.”

“One issue that we will be looking at very carefully is the possibility that some passengers may have been ejected from the train in the course of the crash,” Landsberg said. “And this has occurred in prior crashes, so NTSB has made recommendations to both the Federal Railroad Administration [FRA] as well as the various railroads that are involved.” When asked by a reporter if NTSB knew if passengers were physically ejected out the train or out of their seats as a result of the Sept. 25 derailment, Landsberg said, “We don’t know that yet.”

As for the accident’s cause, Landsberg said NTSB is not ruling anything out right now; it is ruling everything in. He said “maintenance is going to be a very big concern for us. We don’t know, at this point, exactly what happened—whether it was a track issue, whether it was a mechanical issue with the train—so all of these things are open.”

BNSF on Sept. 28 told Railway Age that the “track [at the derailment site] was reopened this morning. The NTSB released the track to us yesterday afternoon and we began making repairs soon after.”

Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn, President Stephen Gardner, and the company’s chief safety and operations executives are in Montana at the accident site to support NTSB and FRA investigators and officials.

Amtrak said in a Sept. 27 statement that it also “has numerous incident response team members, family assistance liaisons and nurse case managers at various locations in Montana to provide individual support for our passengers, our employees and their families. Incident response team members deployed immediately to assist with emergency response and get passengers back to their home or destination yesterday [Sept. 26]. Our family assistance liaisons are working directly with passengers and family members to take care of all personal needs including travel and lodging. Our nurse case managers are working with those hospitalized to facilitate the delivery of medical needs. As soon as Amtrak is permitted do so by the investigators, we’ll retrieve personal effects of our passengers and crew and return them as quickly as possible.”

Amtrak reported that effective September 28-29, 2021, it is restoring full Empire Builder service as outlined below:

  • “Trains 7/27, which normally operate between Chicago and Seattle/Portland, will operate over the full route, effective with the Chicago departure on Sept. 28.
  • “Trains 8/28, which normally operate between Seattle/Portland and Chicago, will operate over the full route, effective with the Seattle and Portland departures on Sept. 29.”

Background Details, Sept. 25-27

Late on Sept. 25, the NTSB released a statement on Twitter saying it was “launching a go-team” to investigate the derailment.

Amtrak reported on Sept. 26 that it had “a team on the ground to fully support the NTSB as they investigate the cause of the derailment.”

“We are deeply saddened to learn local authorities are now confirming that three people have lost their lives as a result of this accident,” Amtrak said in a Sept. 26 statement. “There are also reported injuries among the passengers and crew members traveling on the train. Amtrak is working with the local authorities to transport those who were injured to medical care, and to safely evacuate everyone else at the scene.

“Our Incident Response Team has been initiated, and we are sending emergency personnel and Amtrak leadership to the scene to help support our passengers, our employees and their families with their needs. Individuals with questions about their friends and family aboard this train should call 800-523-9101.”

BNSF on Sept. 26 issued the following statement to Railway Age:

“BNSF has confirmed that an Amtrak train derailed on BNSF tracks near Joplin, Mont., at approximately 4 pm local time on Sept. 25, 2021. BNSF is working closely with Amtrak and local authorities and already have personnel on-site. BNSF appreciates the efforts of local first responders who are assisting with this incident. The cause of the incident is under investigation and BNSF will coordinate with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) team.

“Our deepest sympathies are with the families of those who lost their lives, as well as the injured. BNSF will provide additional details as they become available.”

Also investigating the derailment is the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). FRA has dispatched to the scene a team of 18 technical experts “from core safety disciplines including track, motive power and equipment, signal and train control, and operating practices,” Deputy Administrator Amit Bose said in a statement on Sept. 26. “We have initiated a thorough forensic investigation and analysis in support of the National Transportation Safety Board examining all potential causal and contributing factors.”

“The Federal Railroad Administration extends our deepest condolences to the families of those killed and our sincerest hopes for the full and speedy recovery of those injured as a result of the derailment of Amtrak’s Empire Builder Train #7,” Bose said. “Our number one focus is safety, and we are committed to taking all steps necessary to prevent a similar event from occurring again.” 

Derailment Investigation Checklist

While cause of the accident is unknown, Railway Age Contributing Editor Jim Blaze on Sept. 26 provided the following list of “broad areas that the initial inspectors will examine for evidence of both the essential causal condition as well as contributing conditions.” Blaze’s comments are based on his prior accident investigation research work and risk mitigation experience both with colleagues and mentors at Zeta Tech Associates and with the National Association of Railroad Safety Consultants and Investigators (NARSCI).   

“My HYPOTHESIS in searching for a cause is that the derailment appears to have occurred within the track space of a track turnout,” Blaze told Railway Age. “Both BNSF experts and either/or both FRA and NTSB experts will comb the actual site for clues such as:
• “Turnout metrics wear and tear, missing bolts, and worn switch points not correctly aligned or ‘tight.’
• “Geometry alignment defects through the turnout.
• “Track structure issues that might include internal rail defects or poor joint bar connections.
• “Train speed (recorded by devices inside the locomotive) through the turnout.
• “Possible mechanical car part defects.”

“I’m not citing or prioritizing the actual cause,” Blaze said. “Instead, consider these as a checklist of circumstances to be precisely examined.”

Dr. Allan Zarembski, Professor and Director of the Railroad Engineering and Safety Program at the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Delaware, spoke with Railway Age on Sept. 27. While he noted his comments would be “pure speculation,” he said it was possible that “something broke”—potentially in the track structure or the equipment—or there was a “track-train dynamic interaction,” for example. Zarembski did not suspect “an overspeed or human factors problem because I would expect Positive Train Control to be active and working on that route,” he said.

Gary Wolf, President of Wolf Railway Consulting, LLC, also shared his expertise with Railway Age. Wolf has investigated more than 4,000 derailments worldwide and trained 5,000-plus railway professionals in the techniques of derailment investigation. Additionally, he practices in the areas of train operations, testing/instrumentation, vehicle dynamics, wheel/rail interface, and track maintenance and assessment, and is one of the principal authors for the International Heavy Haul Association’s Handbook for Managing Wheel/Rail Interaction in the Heavy Haul Environment. “In reviewing some photos of the site, it looks like this derailment initiated approximately 500 or so feet east of the turnout … ,” Wolf told Railway Age on Sept. 27. “Whether it was due to a track failure, or mechanical failure is not certain at this point. I agree speed is not likely an issue. It looks like the turnout was collateral damage to whatever happened back up the track. Establishing the true point of derailment (POD) is the first step in understanding a derailment, before any speculation can commence.” 

Message from Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn

“We are in mourning today for the people who lost their lives due to the derailment of the Empire Builder train Saturday, near Joplin, Montana, on the BNSF Railway, as well as the many others who were injured,” Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn said in a statement issued on Sept. 26. “We have no words that can adequately express our sorrow for those who lost a loved one or who were hurt in this horrible event. They are in our thoughts and prayers.

“We are fully cooperating with the investigation, working closely with National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Railroad Administration, local law enforcement and response agencies. We share the sense of urgency to understand why the accident happened; however, until the investigation is complete, we will not comment further on the accident itself. The NTSB will identify the cause or causes of this accident, and Amtrak commits to taking appropriate actions to prevent a similar accident in the future.

“Amtrak’s immediate and sustained focus is on doing everything we can to help our passengers and crew, especially the families of those who were injured or died, at this painful and difficult time. Our Incident Response Team has been initiated. We have sent emergency personnel and Amtrak leadership to the scene to help support our passengers, our employees and their families with their needs. Individuals with questions about their family and friends aboard this train should call 800-523-9101. We have also established a Family Assistance Center in Great Falls, MT, and we will have family assistance liaisons at that site to reach out to those injured and their families to make sure they get what they need. We have dispatched nurse case managers to support those hospitalized. As soon as Amtrak has permission, we will access the accident site to retrieve the personal effects of our passengers and crew.  

“We want to extend our deep gratitude and sincere appreciation to the Joplin and greater Liberty County communities and other Montana counties and their selfless first responders, hospital staff and law enforcement for their immediate and ongoing help to support of all those aboard the Empire Builder for responding with such urgency, compassion and patience.”

Amtrak Service Adjustments

As a result of the derailment, Amtrak on Sept. 26 provided the following service information: “[W]estbound Empire Builder train 7/27, which departed Chicago on Sept. 25, is canceled between Minot, ND (MOT) and Shelby, MT (SBY). Eastbound Empire Builder train 8, which departed Seattle (SEA) on Sept. 25, and Empire Builder train 28, which departed Portland (PDX) on Sept. 25, are also canceled between Shelby, MT (SBY) and Minot, ND (MOT).

“Westbound Empire Builder 7/27 trains scheduled to depart Chicago between Sept. 26-28 will terminate at St. Paul-Minneapolis, MN (MSP). Eastbound Empire Builder train 8, scheduled to depart Seattle Sept. 26-28, will not operate between Seattle and St. Paul-Minneapolis, MN (MSP). Empire Builder train 28, departing Portland (PDX) between Sept. 26-28, will not operate between Portland (PDX) and St. Paul-Minneapolis, MN (MSP). No substitute transportation is currently available. Amtrak customers can contact us at 800-872-7245 to obtain additional information about the status of services.”

Commentary: When the Story Rides The Train
By David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor

Sometimes the story occurs on the train itself. I have filed stories from Amtrak trains, hunting and pecking on my tablet to get the news to our editors. I particularly remember a story about a trip on Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited on June 7, 2019. It bore the headline “The Longest Day—Amtrak Style,” and it occurred 75 years and one day after the Normandy Invasion; the “Longest Day” of World War II. That train arrived in New York the next morning, as did the Capitol Limited into Washington, D.C., due to a freight derailment along the route.

The story from the weekend of Sept. 25-26 was much harsher and scarier. It was the story of a fatal train wreck, an event that happens rarely, but should never happen at all. It’s a story that always knocks a dose of fear into us. For me personally, that fear has been hitting home since the wreck of Amtrak Train 501 in Washington State on December 18, 2017. I knew one of the three people who were killed in that wreck. Still, I continue to ride and report.

Events sometimes occur in remote places, where few people live and where modern communications have not yet fully penetrated the primeval landscape. The site the Empire Builder wreck is remote and could be such a place. It lies about midway between two station stops, Havre and Shelby, on Montana’s High Line. I last rode over that stretch of track on Train 28 on Aug. 23, going from Portland to St. Paul. There is not much to see. The mountains are further west, in and near Glacier National Park, which due to climate change, is running out of glaciers. 

Havre and Shelby have local museums and other attractions, but they are not tourist meccas. Havre commemorates a fire in 1904 that drove merchants and professionals underground, literally into their basements. These “temporary” locations were sealed up during a construction project and later unearthed, and they now comprise a tourist attraction called Havre Beneath the Streets. Shelby’s big event was a prize fight between heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey and challenger Tommy Gibbons, which took place on the Fourth of July in 1923. The Great Northern Railroad built temporary tracks to bring special trains to the town for the spectators, who were accommodated in a hastily-built temporary grandstand. Dempsey won, Gibbons was forgotten, there were more gate-crashers than paying spectators, Dempsey’s manager ran off with the purse, and local banks failed. Eventually, town residents paid off the debts incurred that day. 

Both towns have been quiet since then. That goes for transportation, too. There are no intercity buses serving either town, although local community transportation providers run a van to Great Falls, but not every day. It is possible to make a trip from Havre to Great Falls three times a week and Shelby to Great Falls twice a week, but it is only possible to ride both on Mondays.

Between the two, there is little to see. The line runs roughly parallel to U.S. Route 2, a lightly used highway whose major users appear to be trucks carrying freight across the northern tier of the country. The route affords a glimpse of the Milk River from time to time, and it passes through the towns of Joplin (population 157 in 2010) and Chester (population 847 in 2010), the county seat of Liberty County.

It was between those towns that the wreck occurred. It happened at 3:55 pm, when the train would have been on or close to schedule. Local first-responders and townspeople pitched in as best they could, an aspect of the story that has been widely covered, and deservedly so.

So did other folks. Jacob Cordiero shot a 64-second video of the derailment scene that he posted on Twitter. Megan Vandervest, who was traveling to Seattle, posted a harrowing photo of the wreck, with one car on its side and another projecting upward from the line of cars that remained upright. A former reporter who did not wish to be identified monitored the situation and re-tweeted the above-cited posts, and also re-tweeted a comment from Montana Sen. Jon Tester that he was “closely monitoring the Empire Builder derailment on the Hi-Line,” and another from a TV reporter who covered the event for his network, among others. In short, people on board the ill-fated train and journalists elsewhere pitched in to get the word and the pictures out.

By Monday, local media such as the Cut Bank Pioneer Press, the Great Falls Tribune, and Montana Public Radio (MTPR) added their own coverage. Edward O’Brien reported for MTPR on Sunday that Gov. Greg Gianforte had visited the wreck site, and that local radio station KPOX in Havre had covered the governor’s visit. His report included actualities from the governor’s statement.

One of the posted re-tweets came from a TV reporter and meteorologist, who said: “The problem is that this is in a remote location. Great Falls is the biggest city nearby, which is nearly two hours away. We have a reporter heading to the scene, though. Also, poor cell phone service in the area where the derailment occurred.”

By now, there has been plenty of coverage of the event, including at Railway Age, and we will know more after the NTSB completes its investigation, which everybody is awaiting eagerly, although some have expressed concern. Andrew Albert, Vice Chair of the Rail Users’ Network (RUN), an advocacy organization, told Railway Age: “I hope the NTSB comes out with its report sooner than later, so people will feel confident riding Amtrak.”

By Tuesday, National Public Radio (NPR) was reporting a statement from an NTSB official from Liberty, Montana; near the site of the wreck, that the full investigation should take about one month.

In the meantime, it is time to commend journalists who kept track of the situation as it happened, and persons “on the ground” who got the word and the pictures out in a remote place and under difficult conditions. In this writer’s opinion, at least, that is what good reporting is all about.

Railway Age will update this story as more details become available.

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