Inaugural run

So there was this train derailment not far from here yesterday, that dumped train cars all over the main north-south freeway for the West coast; it killed three passengers. The train was going 80 miles an hour as it went into a curve, where the speed limit was 30.

The revelation that a passenger train was speeding 50 miles per hour over the speed limit at the time of a fatal crash near Tacoma, Wash., has once again focused attention on Amtrak’s safety culture, the role of human error in rail accidents, and the need for technology that automatically slows trains that are going too fast.

Late Monday night, National Transportation Safety Board officials said that the train, bound from Seattle to Portland, Ore., was traveling at 80 miles per hour, on a curve with a limit of 30 miles per hour, when it jumped the tracks and careened into a busy highway and a stand of evergreens. At least three people were killed and about 100 were injured, officials said.

Yesterday afternoon, before the NTSB confirmation, it was already being reported that the train had apparently been going 80. News outlets also published the audio of the engineer’s call to emergency services, so we could hear him say “we were approaching the curve and then we were on the ground”…as if there were something surprising about that when the train was going 80. You don’t have to be a professional to know that trains can’t go 80 on curves, because they’re not agile enough.

The accident mirrored Amtrak’s worst disaster in recent years, in 2015, when a train derailed at more than 100 miles per hour in Philadelphia, on a curve posted at 50 miles per hour, killing eight people.

Train 501, carrying 77 passengers and seven crew members, derailed Monday morning, between Tacoma and Olympia, on the inaugural run of a new route for Amtrak’s Cascades service, where the tracks curve onto an overpass crossing Interstate 5. It was not clear how familiar the engineer was with that stretch of track, or whether that played a role in the crash.

Well oops. Wouldn’t you kind of hope all that would have been considered beforehand? “Oh, hey, new track, had we better maybe make sure the engineer knows where the curves are and knows to slow down when approaching them?” Do they not plan for these things?

Apparently not as much as they should.

Just last month, the N.T.S.B. reported that Amtrak had a “weak safety culture”. That conclusion stemmed from an investigation into a 2016 accident in Chester, Penn., that killed two track workers.

Federal law requires railroads, by the end of 2018, to have positive train control, which automatically slows trains if they are exceeding speed limits or approaching dangerous conditions. In its latest progress report to the railroad administration, Amtrak said it had installed positive train control on all 603 miles of track on the Northeast Corridor, from Washington to Boston.

Congress passed the law requiring positive train control in 2008, after the head-on collision of a commuter train and a freight train in Los Angeles killed 25 people. Railroads were supposed to have the system in place by 2015, but it became clear that many of them would not meet that deadline, the industry lobbied for more time, and Congress postponed the requirement by three years.

The Times includes a photo of the curve. I wouldn’t even call it a curve, it’s a damn corner.

Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

The NTSB press release last month starts with a bang:

The National Transportation Safety Board determined Tuesday the April 3, 2016, derailment of Amtrak train 89 near Chester, Pennsylvania was caused by deficient safety management across many levels of Amtrak and the resultant  lack of a clear, consistent and accepted vision for safety.

A backhoe operator and a track supervisor were killed, and 39 people were injured when Amtrak train 89, traveling on the Northeast Corridor from Philadelphia to Washington on track 3, struck a backhoe at about 7:50 a.m. The train engineer saw equipment and people working on and near track 3 and initiated emergency braking that slowed the train from 106 mph to approximately 99 mph at the time of impact.

The NTSB also determined allowing a passenger train to travel at maximum authorized speed on unprotected track where workers were present, the absence of shunting devices, the foreman’s failure to conduct a job briefing at the start of the shift, all coupled with the numerous inconsistent views of safety and safety management throughout Amtrak, led to the accident.

Cause: human error.

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