A December 2017 Amtrak derailment in DuPont, which killed three people and left train cars dangling over Interstate 5, was the result of multiple systemic failures.
That is the conclusion of a report released last week by the National Transportation Safety Board, which widely spread the blame for the crash. Failures of oversight, planning and training — by Sound Transit, the State Department of Transportation, Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration — contributed to the crash during the inaugural Amtrak Cascades run on the Point Defiance bypass route.
“The probable cause of Amtrak 501 derailment was the Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority’s (Sound Transit) failure to provide an effective mitigation for the hazardous curve,” said NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt. The train traveled at 80 mph into a curve designated for 30 mph. Warning signs, the report found, were inadequate, and the engineer had made only one training run on the route. Sumwalt said the engineer “was set up to fail.”
Perhaps most disconcerting is the fact that, in retrospect, the crash appears inevitable. “There were known hazards,” Sumwalt said. And if the agencies involved had been “more engaged and assertive during the preparation of the inaugural service, it would have been more likely that safety hazards would have been better identified.”
Among the measures that could have saved lives is Positive Train Control. Accident-avoidance systems such as PTC have been available since the 1990s, but they are expensive to install. Four days before the crash, the Federal Railroad Administration granted Amtrak an exemption from the speed-control technology. “If safety is the FRA’s paramount concern, why was Amtrak granted this exemption?,” asked state Rep. Steve O’Ban, R-University Place.
The public should be asking the same question. A 2017 report from the Associated Press found that nearly 300 deaths over the past couple decades could have been prevented had railroads across the country implemented Positive Train Control. After the crash, advanced safety measures were installed in DuPont.
In some ways, the crash echoes two recent international crashes of Boeing’s 737 Max airliner. Reports have indicated that federal regulators eschewed oversight in favor of allowing Boeing to conduct its own safety inspections of navigational software. The similarities should make one thing clear: Ignoring safety regulations at the behest of transportation and manufacturing companies places the public at risk.
Without adequate oversight, such incidents will not be isolated. NTSB recommendations include improved training, enhanced signs along the tracks and improved coordination between agencies.
The public deserves nothing less in the wake of systemic failures.