Last month, an Amtrak train derailed south of Tacoma, Washington. It went off a bridge and ended up on the roadway below. The derailment killed three people, and it injured dozens.
Now, a National Transportation Safety Board report reveals that the engineer on the Amtrak train didn't see or recognize the signposts and signals that indicated a drastic drop in the speed limit, reports The Seattle Times.
It was the engineer’s second time driving a train in that direction—south—on a newly opened stretch of track, known as the Point Defiance Bypass.
The NTSB interviewed the 55-year-old engineer last week, nearly one month after the deadly crash. The delay in the interviewing came because the engineer suffered serious injuries in the crash.
On December 18th, the train was going nearly 80 mph when it derailed on a curve where the speed limit was 30 mph. It was a dramatic crash; the train ended up on Interstate 5, closing the southbound freeway for most of three days.
"Wreaking traffic havoc across the region," wrote the Times, which is especially problematic given the infrastructure problems that already plague the area.
At the time, the train, which was meant to run between Seattle and Portland, was on its inaugural run on the Point Defiance Bypass. It was carrying 83 passengers and crew members; three passengers were killed and 62 people were injured.
"The three men killed were railroad enthusiasts who wanted to be onboard for the first run on the route," related the Times.
In the five weeks before the crash, the unnamed engineer completed seven to 10 “observational trips” in a locomotive on the new stretch of track, according to the NTSB.
He had also completed three trips in which he was operating the locomotive. Two of those trips were driving northbound; only one training trip driving the locomotive the direction it was going when it crashed.
"What’s more, when he saw a signal at the curve, he mistook it for a different one," said the Times.
Signs mark the decreased speed limit 2 miles before the curve and right at the curve, which is milepost 19.8. When the train passed milepost 15.5, it was traveling 79 MPH.
“The engineer told investigators that he was aware that the curve with the 30 mph speed restriction was at milepost 19.8, and that he had planned to initiate braking about one mile prior to the curve,” the NTSB report says. “The engineer said that he saw mileposts 16 and 17 but didn’t recall seeing milepost 18 or the 30 mph advance speed sign, which was posted two miles before the speed-restricted curve.”
By the time he saw a 30 mph signpost—right at the curve—he applied the brakes, but it was too late.
“Seconds later, the train derailed,” the report says.
Peter Knudson, an NTSB spokesman, said investigators have been analyzing Amtrak documents to determine further details on the engineer’s training. After the crash, some Amtrak workers expressed concern about the adequacy of the training they received.
"The workers, the person said, were concerned that engineers had been piled into a single locomotive car to do training runs as a group; that conductors were largely kept in cars farther back in the train or on the trailing locomotive; that some did their familiarization runs in the dark after midnight; and that supervisors were unwilling or unavailable to answer questions about key route characteristics such as speed," reported The Times.
The conductor, Garrick Freeman, has sued Amtrak, alleging the railroad failed to provide safe working conditions. The lawsuit is one of several pending against the railroad and other related agencies after the crash.
“Just prior to the derailment, the qualifying conductor said he looked down at his copies of the general track bulletins,” the report says. “He then heard the engineer say or mumble something. He then looked up and sensed that the train was becoming ‘airborne.’”