NTSB Amtrak 501 Report: “Errors and Unsupported Statements”

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief
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Talgo, Inc., on Oct. 29, 2019 filed a Petition for Reconsideration with the National Transportation Safety Board regarding the Board’s report, Investigation No. RRD18MR001, Accident Report NTSB/RAR-19/01, on the Dec. 18, 2017 overspeed derailment of Amtrak Train 501 at DuPont, Wash.

Talgo’s petition, which is in the public record, can be downloaded here:

“That report contains many errors and unsupported statements, but the most striking is Recommendation NTSB R-19-018 to Washington State Department of Transportation to ‘[d]iscontinue the use of the Talgo Series VI trainsets as soon as possible and replace them with passenger equipment that meet [sic] all current United States safety requirements’ (page 126),” Talgo, Inc. Director of Product Development and Compliance Joshua D. Coran told Railway Age.*

“This statement is remarkable for two reasons: It is unprecedented, and nonsense,” Coran says. “I have researched every available NTSB report of passenger train derailments and collisions dating back to 1971. I have found 33. None recommends the removal of an entire fleet of cars. In at least one case, one might have expected such a recommendation:

“I had been an employee of the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad for about four weeks when, on Oct. 30, 1972, two suburban EMU trains collided at 27th Street in Chicago. The lead car of the older conventional consist telescoped the new gallery-type Highliner at the rear of the train ahead. Forty-five were killed and 322 injured, many very seriously. On April 25 of the following year the NTSB issued a recommendation (1) to the FRA relevant to this collision. It identified as a contributing factor the non-compliance of the attachment of the Highliner collision posts to the underframe. The NTSB said, ‘The Board believes, however, that this condition can be corrected.’ (pg. 1) and went on to say (pg. 3) ‘The problem of the inadequately attached collision posts does not imply that the cars are unsafe to be operated …’

“There was no recommendation to remove the cars from service, not even until they could be brought into compliance. 

“While the NTSB had never, until now, recommended removal of an entire class of equipment, it has, as was the case with the Highliners, often recommended improvements. No such recommendation was made in the case of the Talgo Series VI. Some insight into this anomaly might be provided by Appendix C of the petition.

“Shortly after the NTSB report was issued, many headlines read something like, ‘Non-Compliant Train Kills Three.’ Editors could be forgiven for reaching that conclusion, given several NTSB ‘findings’:

30. The Talgo Series VI passenger railcar AMTK 7424 (8) did not provide adequate occupant protection …

34. The Talgo Series VI trainset is structurally vulnerable if it is involved in a high-energy derailment or collision due to its lack of crashworthiness protections …

 37. The Talgo Series VI trainset does not meet current United States Safety standards and poses an unnecessary risk to railroad passenger safety …

“In fact, the Talgo Series VI was in compliance with all FRA regulations. While compliance with one of them was ‘grandfathered,’ that particular requirement had no relevance in this accident. FRA Administrator Ron Batory’s letter (Appendix D in the attachment) confirms that point.

“Thus, a recommendation to replace compliant equipment with compliant equipment makes no sense, as it accomplishes nothing except negative commercial impact on the manufacturer of the criticized equipment, Talgo, and benefits manufacturers of potential replacements(2). WSDOT’s intent is to adopt the NTSB recommendation. What WSDOT seems to forget is that replacing the tilting, lightweight Talgo sets with heavier, non-tilting cars will not only make surface transportation in the Pacific Northwest less safe, it will have other negative effects as well.

“Trip time between Seattle and Portland will increase. Without tilting, but all else equal, the trip is about ten minutes longer. Heavier cars will accelerate more slowly, adding at least another five minutes. This increased travel time will likely divert at least some passengers to automobiles, negatively impacting their safety and that of others, compared to traveling by rail. Higher, wider and heavier cars will require more energy. Annual fuel consumption will increase by about 400,000 gallons of diesel, costing taxpayers well over $1 million per year. Annual CO2 emissions will increase by about 4,500 tons, impacting the environment.

“There is an additional irony here. The requirement for which FRA provided ‘grandfathering’ for the Talgo Series VI was for 49 CFR 238.203, Static End Strength. This requirement for the car to support an 800,000-pound buff load on the ‘line of draft without permanent deformation’ originated from a ca. 1912 U.S. Post Office regulation requiring Railway Post Office cars to be designed for ‘400,000 pounds of buff on line of draft at half yield.’ The later change to 800,000 pounds without yield, which is essentially the same requirement, made it testable. That the application was to be ‘on line of draft’ was because the wooden cars of the day(3) may (or may not) have had a steel center sill, but certainly had no other structure to support the load.

“It took more than 100 years, but finally, last November, FRA issued a Final Rule for Tier III (220 mph) equipment providing alternate methods for demonstrating safety equivalent to the traditional 800,000 pound buff load. Recognizing that monocoque and semi-monocoque designs have been universal since the 1930s, 49 CFR 238.703, Quasi-static Compression Load Requirements, specifies that this load is to be ‘applied on the collision load path,’ thereby involving the entire structure as it would be involved in a collision.

“The irony is that a new provision in the Tier I rules (49 CFR 238.201, Scope/Alternative Compliance), allows new Tier I trainsets to alternatively comply with the new Tier III rules. Thus, while the existing Talgo Series VI sets must continue to operate under the FRA ‘grandfathering’ waiver, an identical, newly manufactured one would not need that waiver (or any waiver at all) if it could be shown to be in compliance with the new high-speed rules.

“Talgo engaged Simpson Gumpertz and Heger of Waltham, Mass., a highly regarded engineering firm with much expertise in railroad passenger equipment design and evaluation, to analyze the 35-year-old Talgo Series VI design (the trainsets are 20 years old). The conclusion can be found in Appendix A of the attachment. Briefly, SG&H finds that, with one small modification(4), this design will probably be fully compliant with the new rules, the same ones under which Alstom is currently building the Acela replacement for Amtrak.”

FOOTNOTES

“1. There were actually two, Safety Recommendation R-73-13 and 14, one to ‘determine whether the attachments comply…’ and the other to ‘take enforcement action to assure that …’ they did, presumably after modification. It is also notable that these recommendations were adopted on April 11; the two-week delay was specifically to allow the FRA to address the recommendations before they were made public.”

“2. The technical specification for the Amtrak RFP for trainsets to replace the Amfleet I has been changed to eliminate true trainsets in favor of standalone cars. While they may be drawbar connected, articulation is now prohibited.”

“3. New York City’s early 20th century prohibition of wooden cars in the tunnels serving Penn Station produced the Pennsylvania Railroad’s P-70 of 1907, and soon after, similar designs by the commercial carbuilders, but wooden cars ran for a generation almost everywhere else. Many were retrofit to meet the Post Office and later Master Car Builders Association requirements.”

“4. One corner post of the four on each car is slightly below the required strength at just one point (18 inches above the top of the underframe) and in just one direction (longitudinal). The modification required for compliance would be small and could even be easily retrofit into the existing fleet, the very ones the NTSB is recommending be replaced with ‘compliant’ equipment.”

*The observations made by Josh Coran in this story are his own, and not attributable to Talgo, Inc. or Railway Age.

ADDITIONAL READING

UPDATED DEC. 20: Overspeed Cause of Amtrak Cascades Fatal Derailment

Amtrak 501 wreck: Engineer “missed” approach sign

NTSB: Inadequate planning, training caused Amtrak 501 wreck

Asking The Difficult Question

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