Commentary: Many to be held accountable for Amtrak tragedy

Echoing the Boeing 737 Max crashes, oversight and other failures contributed to the 2017 derailment.

By The News Tribune Editorial Board

Call it a crash, or call it a catastrophe. But don’t call the December 2017 Amtrak train derailment near DuPont, which killed three people and injured dozens more, an accident.

An accident is something unforeseen, an unplanned event or circumstance. But the 53 findings from the National Transportation Safety Board investigation presented last week clearly show that the inaugural Amtrak Cascades run on the Point Defiance Bypass route didn’t meet that definition.

It was doomed before it left Tacoma Dome station.

Tuesday’s hearing revealed that major safety precautions were put off or ignored at the public’s peril. The NTSB assigned a large portion of responsibility to Sound Transit, which owns the $181 million stretch of track.

According to NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt: “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.”

But the blame spreads widely. The Washington state Department of Transportation, Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration were implicated, as well.

“There were known hazards,” Sumwalt said, adding that if all these agencies were “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.”

If you hear echoes from the recent investigations of two Boeing 737 Max jet crashes, you’re not alone. Evidence indicates the rail and airline disasters all resulted from systemic failures, which point to alarming regulatory gaps in our transportation network.

The humans at the controls, whether engineers or pilots, shouldn’t be scapegoated for all that went wrong.

At the time of the derailment, the average Uber driver probably had better GPS technology than the railcars carrying 85 people. Lives would have been spared if readily available technology like Positive Train Control had been in place.

Accident-avoidance systems like PTC have been within reach since the early 1990s, but they’re expensive and difficult to install.

In a press release issued right after the NTSB hearing, state Sen. Steve O’Ban of Tacoma was right to question why, four days before the crash, the Federal Railroad Administration granted Amtrak an exemption from the critical speed-control technology.

“If safety is the FRA’s paramount concern, why was Amtrak granted this exemption?” O’Ban asked.

It’s the kind of question that watchdogs need to keep asking. Rail crash data obtained by the Associated Press in 2017 found that the deaths of nearly 300 people could have been prevented had railroads across the U.S. implemented PTC.

Since the DuPont crash, advanced safety systems have been put in place. WSDOT says it will restart the Point Defiance Bypass route soon. But it’s still inexcusable that decades of deadly train accidents preceded the adoption of lifesaving safety standards.

The bypass was designed to shave 10 minutes off the commute time between Tacoma and Olympia, but the southbound route includes a sharp turn that requires a reduced speed.

The Amtrak engineer should have seen the curve from a mile away, but inadequate preparation — he’d completed only one training trip on the southbound route — and substandard signage kept him from doing so. He took the 30-mile-per-hour turn going 80.

No doubt the engineer carries guilt from the crash, but Sumwalt said he “was set up to fail.” Investigators determined that fatigue, drugs or alcohol played no part.

What the NTSB investigation revealed was a web of systemic dysfunction between public and private agencies. It also pointed to the 21-year-old Talgo railcars, which the NTSB said “failed to provide occupant protection.”

When the train hit the curve, the lightweight aluminum railcars broke loose and plunged onto I-5; other railcars dangled precariously over the Mounts Road Bridge.

Witnesses described a chaotic scene. In the wreckage, first responders found 16-year-old Timmy Brodigan upside down and barely breathing, his neck broken.

Within a day of Tuesday’s hearing, WSDOT announced it plans to replace more than 50 of the Talgo railcars “as soon as possible” but no later than 2025.

Not coincidentally, that’s one of the long list of recommendations that came out of the NTSB hearing. Some of the others include increasing training requirements for railroad personnel, using training simulators, enhancing signs at key locations, improving coordination between agencies and strengthening oversight.

Transportation officials at all levels must act with urgency. Nothing will undo the tragic outcome of this derailment, but if the Federal Railroad Administration doesn’t enforce NTSB’s recommendations, we foresee another passenger rail tragedy not far around the bend.

The above editorial appeared in The (Tacoma) News Tribune on Saturday.

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