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Train was speeding 50 mph over the limit before deadly wreck

Seats were jammed together with other debris in an upside-down Amtrak car taken from the scene of Monday’s crash.Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

DUPONT, Wash. — The revelation that a passenger train was traveling 50 miles per hour over the speed limit at the time of a fatal crash near Tacoma, Wash., has again focused attention on Amtrak’s safety culture, the role of human error, and the need for technology that automatically slows trains that are going too fast.

A federal official told the Associated Press that investigators are examining whether the engineer in Monday’s crash was distracted before the train derailed. There was also a trainee in the cab, the official said. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said investigators are looking into whether the engineer lost ‘‘situational awareness.’’


National Transportation Safety Board investigators said the train, bound from Seattle to Portland, Ore., was traveling at 80 miles per hour on a curve with a limit of 30 miles per hour when it jumped the tracks and plunged onto a busy highway and a stand of evergreens. At least three people died and about 100 were injured.

The accident mirrored Amtrak’s worst disaster in recent years, in 2015, when a train derailed at more than 100 miles per hour in Philadelphia, on a curve posted at 50 miles per hour, killing eight people.

Train 501, carrying 77 passengers and seven crew members, derailed on the inaugural run of a new route for Amtrak’s Cascades service, where the tracks curve onto an overpass crossing Interstate 5. It was not clear how familiar the engineer was with that stretch of track, or whether that played a role in the crash.

On Tuesday morning, the crash scene began to look more like a construction site than a disaster. Huge cranes were brought in to lift the wrecked pieces of the train, while the crumpled remains of cars and trucks were loaded onto tractor-trailers and taken away.


Interstate 5, one of the busiest highways on the West Coast, may remained closed for several days, the authorities said.

Two of the people killed, Zack Willhoite and James Hamre, were close friends and rail enthusiasts. Hamre, a retired engineer, was a volunteer for All Aboard Washington, a rail advocacy organization; Willhoite worked as a customer support specialist for Pierce Transit, a local transit agency.

“It was just a given that they would be there,” said Lloyd Flem, a friend of the victims and executive director of All Aboard Washington. “They had wanted to be on that very, very first run.”

On Tuesday, Flem said he had seen both men just a few days earlier and they were eager to board the train.

Just last month, the NTSB reported that Amtrak had a “weak safety culture.” That conclusion stemmed from the investigation into a 2016 accident in Chester, Pa., that killed two track workers.

Federal law requires railroads, by the end of 2018, to have positive train control, which automatically slows trains if they are exceeding speed limits or approaching dangerous conditions. In its latest progress report, Amtrak said it had installed positive train control on all 603 miles of Northeast Corridor track, from Washington to Boston.

Congress mandated positive train control in 2008, after the head-on collision of a commuter train and a freight train in Los Angeles killed 25 people.

Railroads were supposed to have the system in place by 2015, but it became clear many would not meet that deadline, the industry lobbied for more time, and Congress postponed the requirement by three years.


Washington’s Department of Transportation has said the entire Cascades route will have the system by mid-2018, but it was not clear whether it was in operation on Monday on any part of the line.

The track where the accident occurred was newly renovated, as a result of an Obama-era infrastructure program.

Backed by the State of Washington, Sound Transit, the regional transit agency, used $180 million from the 2009 federal stimulus package to buy an old 14.5-mile stretch of track and upgrade it for faster passenger service. The project, known as the Point Defiance Bypass, was devised to allow Cascades trains to stop using a more roundabout route that they shared with freight trains.

The state also spent $58 million from the stimulus bill on eight new locomotives for that service. The Cascades service embodies the complex, overlapping responsibilities on many of the nation’s rail lines.

Officials said the service is owned by Washington and Oregon and operated by Amtrak, whereas the Point Defiance Bypass track is owned by Sound Transit and dispatched by BNSF, the freight company that used to own the line.

A new locomotive was pulling the train that crashed Monday. The locomotive and all 12 passenger coaches derailed, leaving only a trailing locomotive, not in use at the time, with its wheels on the tracks.

The lead locomotive and several coaches plunged down an embankment, some ending up on the highway. At least two coaches tumbled onto their sides, one of them on top of another coach, and two others came to a stop dangling precariously off the bridge.


Parts of the train struck seven vehicles on the highway, injuring some people in them.