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Officials pushed ‘aggressive’ timeline before train safety technology was ready

An Amtrak train derailed and fell off of a bridge and onto Interstate 5 near Mounts Road between Lakewood and Olympia, Wash. on Monday, Dec. 18, 2017. (Bettina Hansen/Seattle Times/TNS)

The corridor where an Amtrak train derailed Monday was years in the making. But in recent months, officials were confronting a mix of deadlines.

State transportation leaders had long ago envisioned the corridor would be refurbished by 2019, according to state records, but to collect federal stimulus money, construction had to be completed by mid-2017. The state then vowed to open the line this fall.

Officials kept that promise, launching the new Point Defiance Bypass route on Monday. But had they waited just a few more months, the service would have included a critical safety feature that automatically slows trains if they exceed speed limits.

Investigators are still determining why the train went into a curve at 80 mph in a 30 mph zone before jumping the tracks, killing at least three people and injuring dozens more. But the accident raises questions about the decision to start the new passenger line before the safety technology, known as positive train control, was scheduled to be fully operational next spring. A spokeswoman for the state Department of Transporation did not have an immediate comment on why new higher-speed service began before the safety system was fully activated.

Congress had once mandated that computerized train-control systems be in place by the end of 2015. Lawmakers later delayed that requirement until 2018, but one state official had said earlier this year he expected the system would be in place “before we start service.”

If operator error was a factor, it would mark yet another fatal crash that could potentially have been prevented by positive train control, including Amtrak’s worst accident in recent years, when a train derailed at more than 100 mph in Philadelphia in 2015, killing eight people. Like Monday’s accident, that train was going more than 50 miles over the speed limit when it derailed on a curve.

Bob Chipkevich, a former director of railroad, pipeline and hazardous-materials investigations for the National Transportation Safety Board and now a consultant in the same field, said positive train control would have taken over the acceleration and braking, and stopped the train.

“I’ve seen too many accidents that could have been prevented on overspeed derailments with positive train control,” he said.

Monday’s derailment occurred on the first regular service along a rebuilt corridor touted to cut travel time and add more round trips between Seattle and Portland.

It was a key project in a larger overhaul of the network. David Smelser, a program manager on the rail project, told officials at a Lakewood council meeting earlier this year that crews were pursuing 20 improvement projects along the rail line from the north part of the state to the south. Most were complete, but the bypass project — which would provide faster and more reliable service south of Tacoma — was still lingering.

Sound Transit, the agency tasked with construction in some parts of that corridor project, wrote in documents in 2016 that the “project is under a very aggressive schedule” and that even a one-month delay would have impacts. It noted that the state was under a deadline with the federal government to be reimbursed for costs.

Smelser said in his January presentation that the overall project was “going very well,” but he conceded that he had some ongoing concerns about the positive train control system, noting the complexities of implementation. But he said “PTC will go in the forthcoming months, before we start service.” He later said he believed it would be turned on “by the end of the year.”

Smelser on Tuesday deferred questions about PTC to the state transportation department. Other documents from Sound Transit indicate the agency had been testing its positive train control system for at least two years. Geoff Patrick, a spokesman for Sound Transit, said it’s on schedule to complete activation of the technology in the second quarter of 2018. He also said that if officials had barred train service in the absence of that system in recent years, “there would not have been a lot of service.”

Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson didn’t answer reporters’ questions about positive train control on Tuesday night, except to say Amtrak is working with partners to meet the 2018 deadline.

“People ask if PTC would have prevented the accident, and we refer that question to the NTSB,” he said. Asked why the system wasn’t installed already, he said, “I think that goes back to the NTSB — I am certain the NTSB is going to make that the center, or a good part of their investigation.”

State Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, said that panel had been briefed repeatedly on the new route. But she said the issue of the automatic speed controls never came up and she was hesitant to draw any conclusions on the derailment before an NTSB investigation was complete.

“I am sure there will be a lot of second-guessing but definitely everybody thought they were doing their best,” Clibborn said. “This is a deadline they picked because they were ready.”

Most of the new corridor has a maximum speed of 79 mph. But signs along the tracks two miles before the curve and again going into the curve clearly mark the speed limit in that zone as 30 mph. A spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation said engineers are trained to slow their speeds according to the limits.

NTSB officials said Monday night the train was going 80 mph before the derailment.

One area that may get scrutiny is the extent of crew training that Amtrak employees received before taking passengers on the rerouted tracks. Railroad workers used to receive more training, and union officials have been in an ongoing struggle with railroads to invest in more practice runs for crews that are assigned to new routes, said John Risch, the national legislative director of the SMART Transportation Division, a large railroad union whose membership includes Amtrak conductors.

“All the railroads in the country, including Amtrak, do not require training like they should. Time and time again we have urged the railroads to allow more training trips before they go out and they will say one or two trips is enough,” Risch said. “It’s a cost issue … That’s something that has been a problem.”

NTSB member Bella Dinh-Zarr said Tuesday that crew members were trained on the route in the past two weeks but that officials would be examining how training was conducted. She said investigators were still waiting to interview the engineer and a conductor who was with him in the cab, both injured in the crash, and other crew members.

Another area of possible inquiry is the prospect of a mechanical problem. At roughly 6:40 a.m., as the train approached Tacoma, a dispatcher asked whether the train had “problems there leaving Seattle,” according to dispatch audio provided by Broadcastify. Someone from the train responded: “Yeah, we had a few mechanical issues that had to be squared away.”

Risch said a braking failure was a remote possibility but that braking systems are generally very reliable, enabling a train to slow to 30 mph within about a mile.

As it left Tacoma, according to a train schedule and data tracked by the site, the train was about 30 minutes behind schedule on its first run of service that was to showcase new speed and reliability.

Among the crashes over the years that led the NTSB to push for advanced train controls was one in 1993 near Kelso, where a head-on crash between freight trains killed five crewmen.

Congress didn’t act on the issue until September 2008, when a passenger train collided head-on with a freight train in California, killing 25 people and injuring dozens of others. Lawmakers mandated that the controls, which can also halt trains on a collision course, be put in place by the end of 2015.

Railroad companies have cited a range of complexities that make implementation difficult, from developing the technology from scratch to the deployment of hundreds of thousands of technology pieces, including to tracks in remote areas.

Allan Zarembski, an engineering professor at the University of Delaware who specializes in railroad research, said the mandate from Congress also largely came without funding. Implementation could cost more than $10 billion, Zarembski said, adding that since rail operators are stuck with the cost, there was a possibility they would skimp on other safety matters such as maintenance in order to cover the bill.

But, Zarembski said, a series of crashes has only increased political pressure to implement the automated safety measures.

On the morning of Dec. 1, 2013, a Metro-North passenger train in New York derailed while traveling 82 mph at a curve where the maximum authorized speed was 30 mph, according to the NTSB. Four people died and dozens were injured. The NTSB determined that the probable cause was the engineer falling asleep due to undiagnosed severe obstructive sleep apnea — and that the lack of train controls was a contributing factor.

On the night of May 12, 2015, an Amtrak train in Philadelphia derailed while traveling 106 mph around a curve where the speed was restricted to 50 mph, according to the NTSB. Eight people were killed, and 185 others were transported to hospitals. The NTSB determined that the probable cause was an engineer accelerating due to a loss of situational awareness — and, again, that the lack of train controls was a contributing factor.

And earlier this year near Steilacoom, Washington, a nonfatal Amtrak derailment led officials to blame speed and human error, saying the engineer approached a drawbridge above the 40 mph speed limit.

Amtrak has continued to expand its positive train control system in recent years. Federal data from mid-2017 shows Amtrak had the technology on about half its locomotives.

Congress has left open the possibility that the train-control requirements could be delayed until 2020. But Zarembski said he no longer believes there will be political support for that.


(Times reporters Hal Bernton and Jim Brunner contributed to this report.)


© 2017 The Seattle Times

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