A train in the Seattle-area recently derailed, leading to at least three fatalities. Investigators are attempting to determine if an engineer for Amtrak, a national rail company, was distracted at the time. One official, who spoke anonymously, suggested that the engineer may have lost “situational awareness”, within the cab.
Bella Dinh-Zarr, with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), said the train’s emergency brake was engaged automatically, not by an engineer. The train was believed to have reached 80 mph, well beyond the 30 mph speed limit in that zone. This was the first time the train had used this new route. The train had approximately 85 passengers as it proceeded on tracks near I-5. After partially derailing, several train cars landed on the highway causing dozens of injuries.
According to Dinh-Zarr, there were two individuals within the cabin of the train, the engineer and a conductor who was training. Both of them were still somewhat unfamiliar with the route, which was supposed to allow for the passenger train to travel the region with fewer curves, one-way tunnels, and commercial freight trains. Dinh-Zarr said that the skid marks showed where the train became derailed, yet it is premature to determine why it was moving so quickly. The engineer and others are being questioned; the on-board event recorder data and camera footage are also being reviewed. Available train technology may have prevented the accident.
The engineer, whose name was not disclosed, had suffered a head wound. According to standard procedure, he will be tested for drugs and alcohol and will have his cell phone records checked to see if perhaps he was distracted. The project had a budget that exceeded $180 million and spanned a distance of roughly 15 miles. Ted Turbin, the lead investigator, says it will be necessary to assess the training program to be certain that the crew members have the required knowledge to operate the train. The testing of the new route had been completed by Sound Transit and Amtrak.
The positive train control (PTC) technology is capable of regulating the speed of a train. Most of the sensors and other components have already been installed, yet were not ready for active usage. The railroads have been under pressure from regulators to have the speed-control capabilities implemented. Richard Anderson, Amtrak’s CEO, explained they are eager to have PTC operating, saying it makes great “scientific sense” and that the incident is a wake-up call.
Reports show that PTC systems could have prevented over 25 train crashes spanning the last two decades. In 2013, a New York City incident left four people dead and another in Philadelphia in 2015 killed eight. These were the result of trains that were traveling at speeds well beyond the limits. The National Transportation Safety Board initially recommended some form of automated speed control back in the 1970s; however, the industry, which has traditionally had financial challenges, has slowly responded.