NTSB Issues Preliminary Report on Amtrak Empire Builder Derailment (UPDATED)

Written by Marybeth Luczak, Executive Editor
Pictured: NTSB Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg at the scene of the Amtrak derailment near Joplin, Mont. (Photograph: Courtesy of NTSB, Sept. 26)

Pictured: NTSB Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg at the scene of the Amtrak derailment near Joplin, Mont. (Photograph: Courtesy of NTSB, Sept. 26)

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has released a preliminary report on its investigation into the Sept. 25 derailment of Amtrak’s Empire Builder train 7/27 near Joplin, Mont.

The investigation of the accident that killed three and injured 44 of the 154 passengers and crew members on board is ongoing. The Oct. 26 NTSB report provided initial findings only—not a cause. Among them: Preliminary data from the leading locomotive’s event recorder showed that the train was traveling between 75-78 mph—under the 79 mph speed limit—when its emergency brakes were activated. In addition, the PTC (Positive Train Control) system was enabled and operating at the time of the derailment. NTSB noted that Amtrak estimated the damage to be more than $22 million.

Image: Courtesy of AP

Following the derailment, NTSB investigators conducted track and equipment inspections, reviewed signal and train control data logs, obtained data from the lead locomotive’s forward-facing image recorder and event recorder, and conducted interviews, according to the preliminary report (reproduced below). Their investigation is focusing on “track and engineering, equipment, survival factors, and passenger railcar crashworthiness,” the report said.

NTSB investigations like this one can take up to 24 months to complete, according to the agency, which has also pointed out that investigations typically look at not only what occurred, but also why, and propose recommendations to prevent future similar tragedies.

NTSB is the lead agency in the Amtrak derailment investigation. Its team—headed by Investigator-In-Charge Jim Southworth—consists of 14 investigators with expertise in rail operations; mechanical; human performance; track; signal systems; recorders; survival factors; and family assistance. Other parties include the Federal Railroad Administration; Amtrak; BNSF; Brotherhood of Maintenance-of-Way Employes Division; International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers–Transportation Division; and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. During a Sept. 27 media briefing, NTSB said representatives from the Volpe Transportation Center, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, were analyzing the crashworthiness aspects of the passenger cars.

Pictured: NTSB Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg, investigator John Manutes and Investigator-In-Charge Jim Southworth. (Photograph: Courtesy of NTSB, via Twitter, Sept. 27)

Railway Age reproduces the NTSB preliminary report here:

“Investigation Details

“What Happened

​“This information is preliminary and will be either supplemented or corrected during the course of the investigation.​ Release date October 26, 2021.

“On September 25, 2021, about 3:47 p.m. local time, westbound National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak) train 7 (also known as the Empire Builder) carrying 154 people derailed in a right-hand curve at milepost 1014.57 on the BNSF Railway (BNSF) Hi Line Subdivision near Joplin, Montana.[1] (See figure.) As a result of the derailment, 3 passengers died, and 44 passengers and crew were transported to local hospitals with injuries. Damage was estimated by Amtrak to be more than $22 million.

“Amtrak train 7 consisted of two locomotives and 10 railcars. Eight of the 10 railcars derailed with four railcars derailing on their sides. In the vicinity of the accident area, BNSF authorizes train movements with a traffic control system. Train movements are coordinated by a BNSF train dispatcher located at the Dispatch Center in Fort Worth, Texas. Train movements on the Hi Line Subdivision are governed by operating rules, special instructions, timetable instructions, and the signal indications of the traffic control system and supplemented with an overlaid positive train control (PTC) system. The maximum allowable speed on this section of track was 79 mph for passenger trains. The PTC system was enabled and operating at the time of the derailment. Preliminary data from the leading locomotive’s event recorder showed that train 7 was traveling between 75 and 78 mph when its emergency brakes were activated. The locomotives and the first two railcars remained on the rail. The weather was clear with no precipitation at the time of the accident.

“While on scene, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators conducted track and equipment inspections, reviewed signal and train control data logs, obtained data from the lead locomotive’s forward-facing image recorder and event recorder, and conducted interviews. NTSB’s investigation is ongoing. Future investigative activity will focus on track and engineering, equipment, survival factors, and passenger railcar crashworthiness.

“Parties to this investigation include the Federal Railroad Administration, Amtrak, BNSF, the Brotherhood of Maintenance-of-Way Employes Division, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers – Transportation Division, and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. [2]


  1. “​(a) All times in this document are local time unless otherwise noted. (b) Amtrak is a passenger railroad service that provides medium- a​​nd long-distance intercity passenger rail service in the contiguous United States and to nine cities in Canada. Train 7 operates from Chicago, Illinois, to Seattle, Washington, with a portion of the train removed at Spokane, Washington, and then continuing to Portland, Oregon, as train 27.
  2. ​​“The Brotherhood of Maintenance-of-Way Employes Division spells the word “Employes” in its name with one e. Therefore, we are using that spelling in this report.

​“Announcements about media briefings and other activities related to this investigation will be made on the NTSB’s media relations Twitter feed @NTSB_Newsroom.”

OBSERVATION ON PTC

Steve Ditmeyer

“The issue of whether or not PTC was involved in the derailment can be determined very quickly,” noted expert in advanced train control Steve Ditmeyer told Railway Age. “First, PTC is not an automatic braking system; the train had a conventional passenger train air brake system. PTC is simply a system to activate the air brakes to prevent a train from exceeding the movement and speed authorities it has received. Because the train was operating a couple of miles per hour below the speed limit when it derailed, that would imply that PTC had not activated the air brakes. But that could have been determined quickly with an examination of the memory card in the PTC on-board computer on the locomotive, which was not damaged in the derailment. If that examination confirms that PTC had not activated the brakes, NTSB could say definitely that PTC had no role in the derailment. If, on the other hand, the examination shows that PTC had activated the air brakes, the NTSB would have to determine why, as well as how the air brake system was involved in the derailment.”

Ditmeyer quipped that he thought the preliminary NTSB report was “wishy washy.”

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