Federal Investigators Find Lack of Auto Braking Caused 2017 Amtrak Crash


WASHINGTON, DC–Amtrak and federal investigators once again have found that a fatal crash could have been prevented if the trains had been equipped with automatic braking systems common elsewhere in the world.

An Amtrak train derailed in Washington state in December 2017 because the absence of an automatic braking system allowed the engineer to enter a 30-mile per hour curve too fast due to his inadequate training on the route and the equipment, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded Tuesday.

On December 18, 2017, Amtrak Cascades passenger train 50 derailed near DuPont, Washington. It was the inaugural run on the Point Defiance Bypass, a new route south of Tacoma Washington. The bypass was intended to reduce congestion and separate passenger and freight traffic, and was designed for faster speeds and shorter travel times.

The lead locomotive and all twelve cars derailed while approaching a bridge over I-5. The trailing locomotive remained on the rails. A number of automobiles on southbound I-5 were crushed and three people on board the train died. The train derailed a short distance from where the new route merges with the previous route.

Preliminary data from the data recorder showed that the train was traveling at 78 miles per hour, nearly 50 miles per hour over the speed limit, when the incident happened.

It is hardly the first time that Amtrak and freight trains have seen tragic accidents because they lacked automatic braking.

Several crashes have taken place over the last decade. Congress ordered all passenger railroads to install new auto braking systems by 2016. Since then, however, Congress has extended that deadline as a result of lobbying by the railroads, and trains have kept speeding into preventable disasters like the one in Washington.

The technology that the railroads are slow-walking, complaining of costs, is known as positive train control. Congress gave railroads three additional years to install it, which means by the end of this year. But the Trump White House has been very aggressive in deregulating industries and giving companies regulatory delay or outright relief through various executive moves.

Railroads have cited the cost and complexity of adding the technology, which relies on satellites and radio signals to prevent trains from running out of control if an engineer has lost focus or fallen asleep. Industry estimates of the total cost of installation exceed $10 billion on all trains.

But the industry, since the initial mandate, has spent considerable money on other priorities, including new trains, stations and passenger amenities. Amtrak has put the technology into use on the Northeast Corridor, from Boston to Washington. New Jersey got the systems put on New Jersey Transit last December.

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David Kiley is Chief of Content for The BRAKE Report. Kiley is an award-winning business journalist and author, having covered the auto industry for USA Today, Businessweek, AOL/Huffington Post, as well as written articles for Automobile and Popular Mechanics.