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NTSB report: Amtrak engineer missed speed-limit signs before train crashed south of Tacoma

UPDATED: Thu., Jan. 25, 2018

In this Dec. 18, 2017 photo, cars from an Amtrak train lie spilled onto Interstate 5 below alongside smashed vehicles as some train cars remain on the tracks in DuPont, Wash. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)
In this Dec. 18, 2017 photo, cars from an Amtrak train lie spilled onto Interstate 5 below alongside smashed vehicles as some train cars remain on the tracks in DuPont, Wash. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)
By David Gutman Seattle Times

SEATTLE – The engineer on the Amtrak train that derailed south of Tacoma in December, killing three people and injuring dozens, said he didn’t see or didn’t recognize the signposts and signals along the track indicating a drastic drop in speed limit, a new report from federal investigators says.

It was only the engineer’s second time driving a train in that direction on a newly opened stretch of track, known as the Point Defiance Bypass.

The National Transportation Safety Board interviewed the 55-year-old engineer last week, about a month after the deadly crash. Both the engineer and a qualifying conductor, who was in the locomotive to familiarize himself with the new track, suffered serious injuries, which delayed their interviews, the NTSB said.

The train was going nearly 80 miles per hour when it crashed on a curve where the speed limit was 30 miles per hour.

In the five weeks before the crash, the engineer, whose name hasn’t been released, had completed seven to 10 “observational trips” in a locomotive on the new stretch of track, the NTSB said. He also had completed three trips in which he was operating the locomotive.

Two of those trips were driving northbound, the NTSB said. He had completed only one training trip driving the locomotive south – the direction it was going when it crashed. What’s more, when he saw a signal at the curve, he mistook it for a different one.

Signs mark the decreased speed limit 2 miles ahead of the curve and right at the curve, which is milepost 19.8.

The engineer, who was hired by Amtrak as a conductor in 2004 and was promoted to engineer in 2013, said that when the train passed milepost 15.5 it was traveling at the speed limit, about 79 miles per hour.

“The engineer told investigators that he was aware that the curve with the 30 mph speed restriction was at milepost 19.8, and that he had planned to initiate braking about one mile prior to the curve,” the NTSB report says. “The engineer said that he saw mileposts 16 and 17 but didn’t recall seeing milepost 18 or the 30 mph advance speed sign, which was posted two miles ahead of the speed-restricted curve.

“The engineer said that he did see the wayside signal at milepost 19.8 (at the accident curve) but mistook it for another signal, which was north of the curve.”

By the time he saw a 30 mph signpost right at the curve, he applied the brakes, the report says, but by then it was too late.

“Seconds later, the train derailed,” the report says.

The engineer told investigators that he felt rested at the start of his shift and that he didn’t think it was a distraction to have the qualifying conductor in the locomotive with him.

That conductor, Garrick Freeman, has since sued Amtrak, alleging the railroad failed to provide safe working conditions.

It’s one of several lawsuits pending against the railroad and other related agencies stemming from the crash.

Freeman told investigators that the engineer appeared alert during a briefing at the start of their shift and while driving the train.

He also said there was “minimal conversation” between himself and the engineer during the trip.

“Just prior to the derailment, the qualifying conductor said he looked down at his copies of the general track bulletins,” the report says. “He then heard the engineer say or mumble something. He then looked up and sensed that the train was becoming ‘airborne.’ ”

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