On Dec. 18, 2017, Amtrak Train 501 derailed on an overpass roughly 50 miles south of Seattle, Washington. The Amtrak derailment resulted in multiple fatalities and left an estimated 100 people with injuries.
Amtrak Train 501 was making its inaugural trip with paying passengers on a new route from Seattle, Washington to Portland, Oregon when it derailed onto Interstate 5, one of the busiest roadways in the state. The train accident left several rail cars scattered on the highway below the overpass, with one car perilously dangling from the bridge. Approximately 80 passengers and five crew members were on the train at the time of the crash.
At least five-passenger vehicles, including multiple tractor-trailers, were severely damaged in the train accident.
“Amtrak 501, emergency, emergency, emergency. We’re on the ground…We were coming around the corner to take the bridge over I-5 there, right north in Nisqually, and we went on the ground.” – Amtrak Train 501 crew member calling for help in the wake of Washington derailment.
Speak with an Experienced Train Accident Lawyer
The law firm of Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman has handled numerous train accident cases against Amtrak and other major rail operators. Our team of attorneys represented victims of the 2015 Amtrak derailment in north Philadelphia, which shares several similarities with the accident in Washington state. We have represented train crash victims since 1987, and have been longtime advocates for train safety improvements, especially Positive Train Control (PTC).
If you or a loved one were harmed in the Washington Amtrak train derailment, you should consider speaking with an experienced train accident lawyer. To discuss your claim with an attorney, please fill out our contact form or call us today at (855) 948-5098.
What Caused the Amtrak Train 501 Crash?
The Amtrak train derailed at approximately 7:34 a.m. in the town of DuPont, which is 50 miles south of Seattle and 19 miles south of Tacoma. The route is part of the Amtrak Cascades service, which runs roughly 467 miles from Vancouver, B.C. all the way down to Eugene, Oregon.
The train was traveling on a new route, part of a $180.7 million project designed to speed up rail service in the Tacoma area by diverting passenger trains from a route along Puget Sound that is slowed by curves, single-track tunnels, and freight traffic. The new bypass route was reportedly built on an existing inland rail line that runs along Interstate 5.
The NTSB will lead the investigation into the Washington Amtrak train derailment. Most train accident investigations of this magnitude take around a year or more to complete, which means the official cause of the accident will not be known until the investigation runs its course.
In the Amtrak Cascades train crash investigation, several key questions must be answered:
- Why was Amtrak Train 501 traveling at more than twice the posted speed limit?
- Was the engineer familiar with the route?
- Was the engineer distracted in the critical moments before the derailment?
- Was the engineer affected by fatigue or a medical emergency that prohibited the train from slowing to the appropriate speed?
- Why was Positive Train Control (PTC) not functional on this section of track?
“Positive Train Control will protect passengers and prevent future tragedy,” says train accident attorney Ronald L.M. Goldman. “Yet, the rail industry and lawmakers have continued to drag their feet, and the result is needless death and destruction.” For more of Ron’s thoughts on PTC, check out his article, ‘Train Crashes and Groundhog Day’
Officials Cite High Rate of Speed in Washington Amtrak Train Derailment
Officials from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) arrived at the scene of the derailment late on Dec. 18. After locating the event data recorder aboard the train, investigators said the train was traveling at 80 mph when it derailed.
According to a spokesperson for Sound Transit, the company that owns the section of tracks where the incident occurred, trains are supposed to slow down to 30 mph to safely negotiate a curve.
Amtrak Derailment Brings Positive Train Control Issue Front and Center
According to multiple reports, the track over which Amtrak Train 501 was operating was not equipped with operational safety technology known as Positive Train Control (PTC). PTC, an integrated safety system that combines GPS, wireless radio, and computers, can automatically slow down a train that is going too fast.
A spokesman for Sound Transit, the company that owns the section of tracks in question, told the media that PTC is installed on the tracks in the area where the Amtrak accident took place, but the technology is not yet operational. The spokesman noted that the target date for PTC to be up and running in the area is Spring of 2018.
According to data from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), Amtrak has implemented positive train control on nearly half of its locomotives and 67 percent of its track nationwide.
Could Positive Train Control Have Prevented the DuPont Train Accident?
NTSB board member T. Bella Dinh-Zarr told reporters following the incident that, “PTC would prevent types of accidents such as this.”
Her sentiment is echoed by train accident attorney Ronald L.M. Goldman, who has represented victims in previous Amtrak train accident lawsuits.
“Human and mechanical errors are facts of life. PTC has been perfected to a very high degree of reliability. It is inarguable that PTC saves lives, and commerce generally benefits by having goods delivered rather than trashed in a crash. Yet, railroads obstinately refuse to install PTC until after tragedy strikes,” Goldman says.
The NTSB has said PTC could have prevented several recent high-profile train accidents, including:
- The NJ Transit train crash in 2016 that killed one person and injured over 100 others in New Jersey’s Hoboken Terminal. After the NTSB released its findings based on the event recorder data, it was shown that just prior to the crash the engineer accelerated from 8 mph to 21mph, more than twice the station’s speed limit.
- Another 2016 crash, where a Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) freight train smashed into another BNSF freight train near the town of Panhandle, Texas, killing three train crew members. According to the NTSB report, one of the BNSF trains reportedly passed through a yellow warning signal without slowing down, instead of speeding up before going through a red light at 65mph.
- The 2015 Amtrak train accident in North Philadelphia that killed eight people and injured more than 200 others. The train took a curve going 106 mph, well over the posted speed limit. In the wake of the crash, NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt told the media that if PTC had been implemented, the crash never would have happened.
According to the NTSB, PTC could have prevented 145 train accidents between 1969 and 2015. Those accidents killed 288 people and injured 6,574 others.
Why is PTC not a Mandated Requirement for U.S. Railways?
A mandate requiring the implementation of PTC was initially written into the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (RSIA). The legislation was introduced and passed into law following several serious train accidents between 2002 and 2008.
However, not long after RSIA’s passage, the rail industry started a fervent lobbying campaign to delay the PTC requirement, citing the high cost of installing the technology. At one point, rail company executives even made the veiled threat that a PTC mandate could result in a transportation slowdown that could potentially decimate the economy.
The industry’s strategy worked—the PTC mandate has changed multiple times since the passage of the RSIA. Rail companies now have until the end of 2018 to implement the technology. This strategy has worked so well that the railroad industry has delayed full implementation of this technology since it was first introduced some 40 years ago. In the meantime, without PTC on America’s railways, accidents like the Amtrak Train 501 disaster will continue to happen, and, most tragically, the lives and well-being of more people will be placed at unnecessary risk.
It is nearly unthinkable that a new high-speed rail route would be opened without the protection of PTC. The willingness of our railroads and politicians to sacrifice lives for profit must stop, and stop now.
Washington Amtrak Train Derailment Updates
Amtrak 501 Had Known Electrical Issues Prior to Crash | June 7, 2018
A lawsuit against Amtrak filed in response to the Dec. 18, 2017 derailment in Washington state alleges there was a known electrical issue that prevented the rear locomotive from effectively braking.
According to King 5 News, a whistleblower divulged information on the alleged electrical problem, which may have caused the rear locomotive to push into rear passenger cars and cause further harm to occupants.
Senators Want Ultimatum for Railroads That Fail to Meet PTC Deadline – March 1, 2018
An estimated two-thirds of all U.S. passenger railroads are in danger of missing the looming deadline to install positive train control (PTC), according to a recent report issued by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). The FRA report drew the ire of several senators who sit on a Senate Commerce Committee oversight panel, including Senator John Thune (R-SC).
“If railroads do not comply with the law by the year’s end,” regulators should “take the enforcement action needed to bring railroads into compliance,” Senator Thune said at a hearing on Thursday
Railroads that transport passengers or hazardous materials are required to implement PTC by the end of 2018. If they fail to implement PTC or receive an extension, railroads can be penalized by the FRA.
Since Congress mandated the implementation of PTC back in 2008, the deadline to implement the lifesaving technology has been repeatedly pushed back due to lobbying efforts by the railroads and capitulations by lawmakers.
The NTSB has long called for the implementation of PTC. Numerous crashes, including the Amtrak derailments in Washington State and South Carolina, could have been avoided had PTC been installed.
NTSB Issues Safety Recommendations After Series of Fatal Train Accidents – Feb. 15, 2018
The NTSB issued new rail safety recommendations today as investigators continue to look into two fatal Amtrak crashes in South Carolina and Washington state. NTSB officials expressed concern that railroad management “is overlooking, and, therefore, normalizing noncompliance.”
One of the NTSB’s recommendations asked the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to implement speed restrictions for trains passing through areas where signaling systems are not in use. In the Feb. 4, 2018, Amtrak crash in South Carolina, CSX workers failed to restore a track switch, which allowed Amtrak Train 91 to be diverted onto a collision course with an idle CSX freight train. At the time of the collision, CSX had also suspended its signaling system so workers could install PTC equipment.
NTSB officials said a suspended signaling system was also at play in a 2016 train accident in Wyoming. Like the South Carolina crash, the signaling system was temporarily out of service so that workers could install PTC equipment.
Amtrak CEO to Testify Before Congress After Spate of Accidents – Feb. 8, 2018
Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson is scheduled to testify before a U.S. House of Representatives panel on Feb. 15, 2018, to discuss the delayed adoption of positive train control (PTC), lifesaving technology that could have prevented the Amtrak derailments in Washington and South Carolina.
The NTSB criticized Amtrak in November of 2017 for establishing a ”weak safety culture.” Since December of 2017, Amtrak has been involved in three high-profile train accidents.
Richard Anderson took over as co-CEO of Amtrak in June of 2017 then became the sole CEO in January of 2018. He will appear before a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee panel along with officials from federal agencies, private rail operators, public transit, and labor to discuss the implementation of PTC.
Two Dead, 100+ Injured in South Carolina Amtrak Crash – Feb. 4, 2018
An Amtrak train collided with an idle CSX freight train in Cayce, South Carolina, killing two crew members and injuring more than 100 others.
Amtrak Train 91 was on the Silver Star route transporting eight crew members and 139 passengers from New York City to Miami when it crashed at approximately 2:45 a.m. EST. Officials identified the deceased as a 54-year-old engineer, Michael Kempf, of Savannah, Ga., and 36-year-old conductor, Michael Cella, 36, of Orange Park, Fla. Both men were in the first car of the train when the accident took place.
According to investigators, a track switch locked in the wrong position diverted Amtrak Train 91 onto a side track where it collided with a parked CSX freight train. The track was not equipped with PTC, which would have prevented the accident, per NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt.
The fatal crash in South Carolina happened less than two months after the Washington Amtrak derailment, which left three people dead.
House of Representatives to Consider Bill to Help Railroads Implement PTC Ahead of Deadline – Jan. 11, 2018
U.S. Representative Peter DeFazio (D-OR) introduced a bill today that would funnel $2.6 billion to the nation’s railroads in an effort to ensure that they will meet the December 2018 deadline for the implementation of PTC. The Positive Train Control Implementation and Financing Act were prompted by the Washington Amtrak train derailment outside of Tacoma, which killed three people and sent dozens of others to area hospitals.
In addition to the funds, the bill would prohibit railroads from launching new passenger routes until PTC is installed. “No more delays, no more extensions, no more excuses from railroads who have had 10 years to implement PTC (Positive Train Control) technology,” said DeFazio, who is also the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Co-sponsors to the bill include six Washington state representatives.
As of today, Amtrak has installed PTC on 51 percent of its locomotives nationally.
Washington State House Transportation Committee Grills Amtrak and WSDOT Representatives Over Amtrak 501 Derailment – Jan. 10, 2018
Representatives from Amtrak and the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) received an earful today from members of the Washington state House Transportation Committee.
The most glaring issue of the day: Why did the Amtrak Cascades route lack Positive Train Control (PTC)? The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has already said the technology would have prevented the Amtrak 501 derailment.
In his presentation before the committee, WSDOT Secretary Roger Millar said he hopes PTC will be installed and operational on the Amtrak Cascades route by the third quarter of 2018. Millar also said trains will not run on the Point Defiance bypass “until PTC is implemented.” WSDOT has also published a lengthy Q&A on the Amtrak derailment on its website.
In related news, Amtrak today announced the appointment of a Chief Safety Officer. The move is one of several reforms the railroad will initiate in the wake of the Train 501 derailment.
Three Amtrak Derailment Lawsuits Filed This Week – Jan. 4, 2018
Victims from the Washington Amtrak derailment filed three lawsuits over the last two days. On Wednesday, Jan. 3, 48-year-old Amtrak conductor Garrick Freeman filed a lawsuit against his employer alleging the rail company failed to provide a safe working environment. Freeman was in the locomotive at the time of the derailment. His lawsuit was one of two filed on Jan. 3, the other by an injured train passenger.
Today, a motorist whose car was crushed by the derailed train filed a third lawsuit. The man reportedly sustained “multiple traumatic fractures” in the incident.
Many more lawsuits stemming from the accident are expected to be filed in the coming months.
NTSB Issues Preliminary Report on Amtrak Crash – Jan. 4, 2018
The NTSB released its preliminary report on the Amtrak Train 501 derailment today. The report does not include any details on what may have caused the crash.
- According to the Seattle Times, the agency has not been able to speak to the engineer driving the train or any Amtrak crew members because of the injuries they sustained in the crash. An NTSB spokesperson said they do not know when the interviews will take place.
- Media reports have indicated the engineer, an unidentified 55-year-old man, has been working for Amtrak for over 13 years. He was promoted to engineer in August of 2013.
- While the NTSB’s preliminary report does not give any indication as to why the train was going nearly 50 mph above the posted speed limit when it derailed, the agency did note that a 30 mph speed limit sign was posted on the engineer’s side of the locomotive roughly two miles before the derailment site. A second sign was posted immediately before the curve in the track.
- The NTSB report estimated that the total damage stemming from the accident would top $40 million.
- Lastly, the agency confirmed that PTC would have prevented the derailment of Amtrak 501.
New York Times Op-Ed Says Amtrak Derailment ‘Caused by a Collective Failure’ – Dec. 24, 2017
The New York Times Editorial Board issued an opinion piece today that says while the Amtrak derailment in Washington State may have been the result of an engineer going much too fast, the train crash is also “another demonstration of this country’s collective, continuing failure to invest in infrastructure.”
Recalling the similarities between the Washington derailment and the 2015 Amtrak derailment in North Philadelphia, the article makes the case that the U.S. can no longer afford any delays to implementing Positive Train Control (PTC).
“This technology is not some hot new thing. The National Transportation Safety Board has been recommending it for nearly half a century. For various reasons — including bureaucratic inertia and penny-pinching — many railroads still don’t have functioning systems in place.”
NTSB Releases New Details on WA Train Accident – Dec. 22, 2017
The Amtrak 501 engineer reportedly made a comment about “over speed condition” roughly six seconds before the train derailed, per the NTSB. While this statement on its own leaves more questions than answers, it does appear possible that the engineer knew the train was carrying too much speed prior to the crash.
Here are some other points of emphasis from the NTSB’s briefing:
- NTSB uploaded the video and audio feed from the train. One feed was inward-facing, recording the actions of the crew, while the other was pointed outward and recording the conditions in front of the locomotive.
- Video footage showed the engineer applying the brakes, but it does not appear that he set the brake handle in the emergency-braking mode.
- The train’s final recorded speed was 78 mph.
According to the NTSB, a preliminary report on the Washington Amtrak train derailment is expected in the coming days.
Three WA Amtrak Crash Victims Identified – Dec. 22, 2017
Officials have identified the deceased victims from the Amtrak accident as 61-year-old Jim Hamre, 35-year-old Zack Willhoite, and 40-year-old Benjamin Gran.
Mr. Hamre and Mr. Willhoite were avid rail enthusiasts who had been looking forward to the experience of taking a ride on the new Amtrak route. Both men worked in transportation and were longtime rail safety advocates who traveled throughout the U.S. and the world in their spare time to ride on new train lines.
According to his grandmother, Benjamin Gran was “Amtrak’s biggest fan.”
Nearly 300 People Have Died in Rail Crashes That PTC Could Have Prevented – Dec. 22, 2017
According to rail accident data obtained by the Associated Press, 298 people have lost their lives in train crashes across the U.S. that could have been stopped if the rail industry implemented Positive Train Control, a safety system that the NTSB has been asking for since 1969. This total does not include the deaths from the Washington Amtrak 501 crash, which remains under investigation.
“We have recommended PTC for decades,” said NTSB board member Bella Dinh-Zarr. “Unfortunately the deadline was moved farther into the future, and every year that we wait to implement PTC to its fullest extent means that more people will be killed and injured.”
Passenger Recounts the Horror of Amtrak 501 Derailment – Dec. 21, 2017
Adron Hall, who publishes the blog TransitSleuth, was a passenger aboard Amtrak 501. Hall described the experience of the derailment in vivid detail.
“Then in a matter of seconds, as I looked out of the window waiting for the laptop to bring up something, I reached forward out of reaction to grab onto the seat back tray as the train lifted hard, catapulting me upward toward the luggage rack above. I hit my head hard against the luggage rack. I those milliseconds I realized we were derailing and I’d hoped we didn’t have a ravine or hill to fall down, it’d be no problem then. But the drop came and it was hard, I was thrown across the seat row into the seat arm rack across from me. The impact broke 4 of my transverse process pieces on my lower lumbar vertebrae. Of course, at this point, I closed my eyes for a split second as I then was thrown against the floor of the car, slightly under the seats.”