And how many deaths will it take ‘til he knows

That too many people have died?

—Bob Dylan, “Blowin’ In The Wind” 

The December 18th derailment of Amtrak Cascades train 501 resulted in three deaths and 62 passengers and crew members injured, in addition to eight people hit by either the train or by debris on Interstate 5 below the derailment, according to a Preliminary Report by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released on January 4th. 

Amtrak should have learned from its experience with the derailment of train 188 in Philadelphia, PA in 2015, when train 188 was speeding through a sharp curve at almost twice the speed limit. 

In the Amtrak train 188 derailment, in which eight passengers were killed and 200 injured, the NTSB concluded that contributing to the train crash was the lack of Positive Train Control (PTC), an emergency braking system. PTC is a computer automated system that can automatically slow down or stop a speeding train when human operators fail to do so.

Amtrak’s safety problems are not new. In 2016, in Chester, PA, outside of Philadelphia, Amtrak train 89 derailed and slammed into a maintenance backhoe; two workers were killed and 40 passengers injured. In mid-November of 2017, NTSB chair Robert Sumwalt, in response to NTSB findings on the train 89 derailment, said Amtrak’s grab bag of priorities created a culture of fear and non-compliance where bending the rules seemed acceptable to “get the job done.” NTSB investigator Mike Hoepf said “Amtrak’s lack of a strong safety culture is at the heart of this accident.”

Yet a little over a month later, on December 18th, train 501 of Amtrak Cas­cades (which is owned by the Wash­ington State Depart­ment of Transpor­ta­tion) began its initial passenger service on the Point Defiance Bypass route (on tracks owned by Sound Transit) with PTC not operational on the train and the tracks over which train 501 was traveling. Despite Amtrak’s knowing that the lack of an operative PTC contributed to the Amtrak train 188 derailment, Amtrak began service on December 18th without an operative PTC system. The Preliminary Report of the NTSB found that, had PTC been operational in train 501 at the time of the accident, PTC “would have applied the train brakes to maintain compliance with the [30 mph] speed restriction and to stop the train.” The derailment would have been prevented.

We now know Amtrak train 501 was traveling 78 mph in the curve where the derailment occurred: 48 mph over the 30 mph speed limit.

Amtrak has installed PTC on most of the NE Corridor, from Washington D.C. to Boston. Although Congress passed legislation that PTC does not have to be installed in the U.S. until late 2018 (having extended the date from the end of 2015), Amtrak should have taken safety measures to implement PTC before service on the Point Defiance Bypass began on December 18th.

Before more people die or are injured, Amtrak should put the safety of its passengers and crew first, and ensure that all its trains and the tracks Amtrak trains travel on have operative PTC. 

James S. Rogers, EAGLE Member, is a Seattle attorney with The Law Offices of James S. Rogers. His practice emphasizes product liability, crashworthiness and transportation-related litigation. He is a Past President of WSAJ, and was its “Trial Lawyer of the Year” in 1998.