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‘Everybody hated that curve’: Amtrak engineer told of worries before December crash south of Tacoma

A small amber, diagonal sign, right of the rails, saying “P 30,” warns that a 30 mph zone lies ahead. Event-recorder data say emergency brakes weren’t applied before the December crash. (Ellen M. Banner / Seattle Times)
A small amber, diagonal sign, right of the rails, saying “P 30,” warns that a 30 mph zone lies ahead. Event-recorder data say emergency brakes weren’t applied before the December crash. (Ellen M. Banner / Seattle Times)

The engineer in last December’s Amtrak Cascades derailment worried about the dangerous curve at DuPont, received a phone call from a foreman to remind him of the hazard, and tried in vain to see a speed-limit sign.

Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), revealed those details Tuesday, during an investigative hearing in Washington, D.C.

The engineer, identified in records as Steve Brown, 55, had made two northbound and one southbound training runs in the new corridor between Lakewood and Nisqually, before the Dec. 18 derailment that killed three people and injured 62 others. He also passed a written exam and took seven to 10 observational rides.

The Amtrak train derailed and fell off a bridge and onto Interstate 5 near Mounts Road between Lakewood and Olympia last December.  (Bettina Hansen / Seattle Times)
The Amtrak train derailed and fell off a bridge and onto Interstate 5 near Mounts Road between Lakewood and Olympia last December. (Bettina Hansen / Seattle Times)

The NTSB waited four weeks to interview the injured engineer. Brown told investigators about a last-minute change in locomotives, and he described a call from a railroad foreman shortly before leaving Seattle, according to the NTSB interview transcript posted online.

“He was concerned that he or another road foreman wouldn’t be with me on the trip. And we talked about some of the physical characteristics, including the curve, in that call,” he said.

Investigators asked Brown if he remembered what he said about the curve or what he was saying.

“Just we all hated that curve,” the engineer recalled. “Everybody hated that curve. Everybody was concerned about the curve.”

The train, making its first-ever passenger trip on a renovated Tacoma-Nisqually route, was going southbound at 80 mph when it reached a 30 mph curve and derailed. Some railcars landed on Interstate 5, beneath a gray train overpass at DuPont.

NTSB members mentioned Brown was trying to look for a white sign. They speculated his peripheral vision was hindered within the unfamiliar locomotive. The sky was dark and rainy.

A small amber, diagonal sign, right of the rails, says “P 30” some two miles before the curve, to warn that a 30 mph zone lies ahead. Event-recorder data say emergency brakes weren’t applied.

Michael DeCataldo, vice president of Amtrak operations, said that under new safety reforms, engineers must complete at least four practice trips, depending on difficulty, to qualify in new territory.

He admitted that as many as seven people rode in the front cab last year during night practice trips, exceeding Amtrak standards, in the Lakewood-Nisqually area.

NTSB board member Bella Dinh-Zarr asked if Washington state considered waiting until positive train control systems are ready, as written in the corridor plan, to automatically slow an over-speeding train.

“We did not,” said Ron Pate, rail director at Washington State Department of Transportation. Over two decades, some 14 million passengers have ridden Cascades trains, operating under longstanding dispatch and safety methods, Pate said.

Federal Railroad Administration officials said the corridor met regulations, because Congress had stretched its 2015 deadline for the positive train control system until December 2018.

Nonetheless, board member Earl Weener questioned why someone didn’t challenge the decision to run trains that must decelerate 50 mph for the curve — especially after a 2015 curve derailment that killed eight people in Philadelphia.

“A lot of people had the chance, so nobody stood up to say, that is not a good design?” asked Weener, an aerospace engineer. “So this is an issue of diffusion of responsibility.”

Cascades trains are owned by the state, operated by Amtrak, on tracks owned by Sound Transit in the Tacoma to DuPont corridor, through BNSF Railway’s dispatch territory, under Federal Railroad Administration regulation.

The $181 million Tacoma-Lakewood-Nisqually corridor should save 10 minutes and make schedules more reliable for Seattle-to-Portland trains, which take a scenic but slow waterfront path through Tacoma Narrows, mixed with freight trains.


 

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