Local politicians and emergency responders have worked together for years to prepare for a train disaster if it were to hit Spokane.
The railways through Spokane have speed limits and both Union Pacific and BNSF officials confirmed that each has what’s known as positive train control technology, which is designed to slow or stop a train even if the conductor fails to act.
News reports indicated that the Amtrak train that crashed Monday, killing three passengers and closing Interstate 5 for days, did not have that safety measure working yet.
Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday that the Amtrak train on its inaugural run was traveling 80 mph on a track posted for 30 mph. The engineer did not apply the brakes as the train coursed down a mild grade and toward a curve in the track to cross I-5.
Emergency brakes were engaged only after the train began going off the tracks.
The Associated Press reported that the new faster Amtrak route linking Seattle and Portland was pressed into service even though the control technology wasn’t set to be completed on the 15-mile span where the derailment happened until next spring.
The technology could have detected the train’s speed and automatically applied the brakes to slow the train before it entered the curve, according to the AP.
Railroads are required to install positive train control by the end of next year after several delays.
Positive train control had been on the wish list of safety regulators for years. Congress acted in September 2008 following the collision of a Metrolink passenger train and a freight train operated by Union Pacific in California.
The collision nine years ago killed 25 people and injured 135.
Amtrak officials said Tuesday they have taken steps to implement positive train control systems on about two-thirds of its rail lines and about half of its locomotives. Its route in the Northeast has the technology fully installed.
Richard Anderson, the CEO of Amtrak, said “no one wants PTC more than me” but would not directly answer questions Tuesday evening about why it is taking so long to get the speed-control technology up and running across the country, according to the AP.
“I’m a huge believer in positive train control,” he said at a news conference. “It just makes so much scientific sense.”
Anderson said the company’s safety culture can continue to improve and that the crash should be seen as a “wake-up call,” the AP reported.
First responders in Spokane have focused less on passenger trains and more on the potential of oil spills or chemical releases from the dozens of trains that roll daily through downtown Spokane, said Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich.
“We’ve conducted multiple table-top exercises … if we had an oil train derailment,” Knezovich said. “We’ve talked extensively for years now. We continue to talk about it, and assess where we are at … and if our hazard materials teams have what they need to deal with those situations.”
Despite that planning, elected officials from City Councilman Breean Beggs to Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray have pushed for higher safety standards for the oil trains.
“I think the Amtrak crash shows that no matter how much money you spend on a line or how safe it is, there is always a risk of a catastrophic derailment,” Beggs said.
Cantwell and Murray both sponsored the Crude-By-Rail Safety Act of 2015, which would have required companies to reduce the gases in crude oil shipped by rail car and halted the use of older-model tankers. But the legislation failed to pass.
“While we don’t know yet what caused Monday’s tragic derailment in Dupont, what we do know is that we need to be doing more as a country to keep people safe no matter how they travel,” Murray said in a prepared statement. “I’ve long supported improvements and updates to our transportation infrastructure, including our rails, and will continue to make the case in Congress on this matter.”
Cantwell, too, offered her support to the first responders to the Amtrak crash.
“We need to let the investigators on the ground do their job, and we should pay close attention to their recommendations to ensure that this type of tragedy will not be repeated,” Cantwell said. “Until then, I will work with Senator Murray and the congressional delegation to ensure federal resources are available as needed.”
Even if the rules don’t change, local first responders will continue to practice for the worst-case scenario, said Chandra Fox, deputy director of the local emergency management office.
“The main crux is to bring all of the response partners together in one room at one time and talk through the issues,” she said. “The whole point is to get people together and talking about it so we have started down the road of relationship building and understanding roles and responsibilities beforehand.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report