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FEATURE NEWS

The Derailment:
Knowns and Unknowns

December 19, 2017




Accident scene. WSP photo


Accident scene collage. Photos: YouTube. CLICK TO ENLARGE


Larger accident scene photos by WSP. CLICK TO ENLARGE
By Rex D. Cain
Chronicle


(LACEY, WA.) -- The big question that was on just about every lip in the northwest yesterday and going into the late night hours Monday was, "What caused it?"

Why exactly did 12 rail cars and one of two engines on that 14-unit maiden voyage Amtrak train derail Monday morning near Lacey on the way to Portland, the initial run of a new high-speed service, killing at least three people and injuring dozens of others?

About the only answer late into the night Monday was that despite some tantalizing clues, it may take a while for NTSB (National Transportation & Safety Board) investigators to come up with the definitive answer.

That would be due to the painstaking, in-depth look under every rock to examine every piece of blood-stained twisted metal and interview every single witness type of probe those NTSB investigators are known for and are bound by law to perform.

Like homicide investigators carefully unraveling and slowly unlocking the secrets a crime scene has to tell, so too do NTSB investigators slowly peel back layer after layer in the mosaic of such brutal, deadly crashes in order to coax truth from the aftermath.

Bella Dinh-Zarr, a spokeswoman for the NTSB said investigators had arrived at the scene Monday night local time and would probably be there doing their job for a week, maybe 10 days.

She said the 12-car train had engines at the front and rear and that the engine's data recording had been retrieved. She added that "preliminary indications are that the train was traveling at 80mph on a 30mph track," as it approached the portion of track that is on a freeway overpass.

The train conductor was supposed to slow it down to 30 mph before it went into that curve where the crash happened. Was it conductor error? A mechanical failure? A combination of both factors? Unknown at present.

Knowns and unknowns:

....According to the state patrol about 100 people were taken to local hospitals, an unknown number of them in critical condition. There were at least three people who died.

.....Train was carrying about 80 passengers and seven crew members when it when flying at high speed off the rails about 7:30am, according to Amtrak officials.

.....That Amtrak Cascades 501 (it's official name) left Seattle for Portland at 6 am Monday morning. Although the train is owned by Amtrak, the tracks it runs on are owned by Sound Transit. They were upgraded to handle high speed trains under an agreement hammered out with the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT).

.....Speed: Amtrak officials say the train was rolling along close to 80 mph before it reached the over pass, The train was supposed to slow way down to some 30 mph before going into the curve where the crash happened. Was it conductor error? A mechanical failure? A combination of both factors? Unknown at present.

.....On the stretch of Interstate 5 right below the over pass where a portion of the train came crashing down, five vehicles and two big semi-trucks were damaged by the falling train cars and other debris. Several people were injured in their vehicles but none of them died.

.....According to Amtrak officials a safety system called Positive Train Control (PTC) was not operational on the train that crashed. That PTC system uses GPS tracking to automatically warn the driver of speed limits and other local conditions and actually applies the train's brakes automatically if the warnings are not heeded.

.....Congress originally mandated the PTC be installed on all trains by the end of 2015 but published reports say the retrofit is still not even half the way completed.

.....President Donald Trump's first reaction to the derailment was a tweet. He said the crash showed the need for his forthcoming infrastructure plan however some news outlets were quick to report that his submitted federal transportation budget actually proposed cuts to funding the nation's rail systems.





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