Amtrak 501 wreck: Engineer “missed” approach sign

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief

The engineer of Amtrak Cascades 501, which derailed on Dec. 18, 2017 in DuPont, Wash., has told the National Transportation Safety Board that he does not recall seeing an approach sign with a speed restriction placed two miles before the 30-mph curve upon which the derailment occurred.

The 55-year-old engineer, whose name has not been released, didn’t initiate braking from track speeds approaching 80 mph until his train entered the curve, where it derailed on a bridge over Interstate 5, killing three and injuring 70, among them eight motorists on I-5, according to an NTSB investigation update released Jan. 25.

The NTSB said the engineer was on his second southbound run on the newly opened Point Defiance Bypass. Both the engineer and a conductor undergoing training with him in the locomotive, a brand-new Siemens Charger diesel-electric, were among the injured. The conductor is among the victims who have filed lawsuits against Amtrak and others over the accident. NTSB officials said it will take up to two years to complete its investigation, and that the accounts from the train crew would be compared against locomotive cab video and other sources.

Previously, the NTSB had disclosed that the crew wasn’t using smartphones or other electronic devices just before the accident, ruling out that type of distraction as a possible cause.

The NTSB said the engineer and conductor could not be interviewed until the week of Jan. 22 due to their serious injuries. Both men, who prior to 501’s run had not worked together, told the NTSB they felt rested and alert at the beginning of the run and spoke little as the train got under way.

The engineer told NTSB investigators he didn’t recall seeing the speed sign that warns of the approaching 30-mph speed restriction two miles before the curve. The sign was posted on the right-hand side of the right-of-way; the engineer’s position was on the right-hand side of the locomotive cab.

The engineer also said he didn’t recall seeing a milepost marker near the speed sign that would indicate where the curve was in relation to the train’s position. When he saw the second 30 mph sign at the beginning of the curve, he initiated an emergency brake application, but by then it was too late to prevent a derailment.

The conductor-in-training told the NTSB he spent most of his time during the run reviewing paperwork to help learn the territory. “Just prior to the derailment, the qualifying conductor said he looked down at his copies of the general track bulletins,” the NTSB update said. “He then heard the engineer say or mumble something. He then looked up and sensed that the train was becoming ‘airborne.’”

Comments Railway Age Contributing Editor Jim Blaze:

“After discussions with several older, experienced qualified locomotive engineers, it would appear that the level of locomotive engineer technical qualification training may have deteriorated, as outsourced, contracted training is replacing what older, experienced railroad hands used to provide.

“Is this a case of safety being too casually contracted-out to a low-cost vendor?

“It used to be that locomotive engineers memorized the details of their routes on which they qualified. They rarely needed ‘signs.’ As one experienced engineer reminded me, ‘All we needed were the signals of the next block ahead. We knew the territory and where we were at all times, even just by the feel of every jiggle or jostle in the track. We knew every break in the rail—switches, facing or trailing point; signals; signs; barking dogs—yes, even their location—and anything else to keep ourselves familiarized with the railroad.’

“In 501’s wreck, where a higher service speed on the rebuilt Point Defiance Bypass route was the objective of a diverse sponsor group, the accident came down to a missed approach sign to the strategic, 50-mph speed reduction required well before the bridge curve.

“This is illogical. How could the engineer have been trained and then certified by anyone as being qualified without this as basic knowledge of his route? Is this the new standard of safety qualification?

“In the search for a root cause, this is possibly a failure at the shared P3 (public-private partnership) strategic level of complex railroad projects for one person to have clearly assumed an ‘I’m in charge’ role to provide high-quality locomotive engineer training. Someone needs to get this straightened out. Who’s going to take charge?”

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