Monday, December 18 was a terrible tragedy for those on board a Washington Amtrak train traveling from Seattle to Portland. The crew and passengers of the Amtrak Cascades 501 faced a worst-case scenario when the train derailed at 7:30 a.m. from its track. The train wrecked on a bridge with some of the cars falling onto the I-5 freeway near Mounts Road on the length between Lakewood and Olympia. All 12 of the train cars jumped the rails while only the front engine jumped the track. The train was sprawled across the bridge with some of the train cars running onto the street below.
The train was carrying about 80 passengers and 7 crewmen at the time of the accident. 3 train passengers have died and more than 70 others have suffered injuries that range from minor scrapes to grave wounds. Several of the passengers are currently hospitalized as they receive critical treatment for their injuries.
Investigations into the cause are still underway; however, preliminary examinations revealed that the train derailed at 80 mph. The speed limit for trains at the place of derailment was supposed to be 30 mph, which means the train was 50 mph over the limit. Authorities have collected data recorders from the front and rear locomotives, and camera recordings have been sent to Washington D.C. While the recordings were damaged, authorities are hoping the footage can be retrieved.
Preliminary investigations have revealed that an engineer and a new conductor were in the cab during the crash. The National Transportation Safety Board requires all new train conductors familiarize themselves with the lay of the land. This means the conductor was likely taking note of the territory the track was on when the train derailed. Examinations have shown that the emergency brake for the train was not flipped by either the conductor or the engineer, but that the train flipped the switch on its own.
The tracks where the train derailed were part of a recent track-upgrade that were made in agreement with the Washington State Department of Transportation. The incident occurred on the opening day of the new route. In fact, the Cascades 501 was the first Amtrak train to use the new Point Defiance Bypass route, which was created to shave 10 minutes of time for a trip from Seattle to Portland.
As a result of the derailment, the southbound lanes of the I-5 are still closed for traffic. While all 12 of the train cars have been cleared, the 270,000-pound locomotive is still at the crash site awaiting clean-up. The federal investigating board will soon interview the train’s engineer and the other crew members to help clear the air concerning the cause of the derailment.