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Aerial view of the wreckage after the derailment.
|Date||December 18, 2017|
|Time||07:33 local time (15:33 UTC)|
|Location||Near DuPont, Washington|
|Rail line||Point Defiance Bypass|
|Type of incident||Derailment caused by overspeed|
On December 18, 2017, Amtrak Cascades passenger train 501 derailed near DuPont, Washington, United States. It was the inaugural run on the Point Defiance Bypass, a new passenger rail 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 (saving ten minutes from Seattle to Portland) than the previous route used by Cascades.
The lead locomotive and all twelve cars derailed while approaching a bridge over Interstate 5 (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.
The Point Defiance Bypass was built from 2010 to 2017 as a replacement for the BNSF mainline that runs along the Puget Sound coast between the Nisqually River and Tacoma. The $181 million bypass, using an inland route that follows I-5, was built by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) on right of way owned by Sound Transit, the regional transit authority. The Amtrak Cascades service is a joint effort of WSDOT and Oregon Department of Transportation, with Amtrak as a contracting operator. In the wake of the December 18 derailment, the safety of the bypass was questioned by elected officials. The 2006 Cascades corridor plan recommended that the curve and overpass where the derailment occurred be replaced with a straighter alignment, costing $412 million. The final plans omitted the overpass replacement, with a smaller budget of $180 million granted for the entire project.
At 07:33 local time (15:33 UTC), the leading locomotive and twelve cars of the southbound Amtrak Cascades number 501 passenger train derailed southwest of DuPont. DuPont is about 40 mi (64 km) south of Seattle and about 5 mi (8.0 km) south of the Joint Base Lewis–McChord (JBLM) main gate. The train derailed while approaching the railroad bridge across southbound I-5 near Mounts Road, which contains a left-hand bend.
The lead locomotive, a new Siemens Charger No. 1402, and six rail cars went down the embankment to the west of the bridge (to the right, in the original direction of travel); the locomotive ended up on I-5 and spilled about 350 US gal (1,300 L) of fuel. Two further cars ended up on the bridge span, and three cars went off the railroad bridge abutment on the opposite side, some onto I-5. The trailing General Electric Genesis P42DC locomotive, No. 181, remained on the tracks. Seven vehicles, including two trucks, were damaged by the derailed cars of the train.
The southbound train was operating between Seattle and Portland, Oregon, on the first revenue service run of the Cascades on the new, faster Point Defiance Bypass route between Lacey and Tacoma. The train was running about 30 minutes behind schedule. Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson said that positive train control was not active on the track, a factor cited in the December 2013 Spuyten Duyvil derailment and the 2015 Philadelphia train derailment.
There were five Amtrak employees, a technician from train manufacturer Talgo, and 77 passengers on board the train at the time of the derailment. Three passengers were killed and 62 passengers and crewmembers were injured. Ten of the injured were in serious condition, and thirteen had moderate or minor injuries. Some passengers in vehicles on I-5 were also injured. In total, more than 80 people were injured. Treatment was provided at hospitals including Madigan Army Medical Center at JBLM, Providence St. Peter Hospital in Olympia, St. Anthony Hospital in Gig Harbor, Tacoma General Hospital, Good Samaritan Hospital in Puyallup, and St. Clare Hospital in Lakewood. Three soldiers from Joint Base Lewis–McChord (JBLM), including a Madigan Army Medical Center nurse, left their vehicles to give medical assistance to people trapped inside the train cars, and help them escape.
Amtrak temporarily suspended service for south of Seattle for several hours because of the accident, resuming on the former coast route and the old Tacoma station. Southbound automobile traffic was rerouted away from I-5 by WSDOT until the site was cleared of debris and inspected. On December 18, JBLM allowed southbound traffic through from DuPont to State Route 510 near Lacey.
WSDOT announced on December 21 that it would not resume Amtrak service on the Point Defiance Bypass until positive train control is implemented in 2018. The accident caused at least $40 million in damage, including the cost of the trainset, damage to vehicles, and damage to the overpass.
Some of the wrecked train cars were removed by trucks on December 19. Two southbound lanes of I-5 were reopened on December 20, with a reduced speed limit, as the cleanup and investigation continued. By the morning of December 21, all lanes of the freeway had been reopened.
Within hours of the derailment, Governor Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency and activated the Washington Military Department's emergency operations center at Camp Murray, adjacent to JBLM, to coordinate the multi-agency response to the incident.
President Donald Trump said on Twitter a few hours after the accident that the derailment shows that his "soon to be submitted infrastructure plan must be passed quickly." He said "several trillion dollars" were spent in the Middle East while the transport infrastructure "crumble[s]". A second tweet said his "thoughts and prayers are with everyone", and he thanked first responders. The Associated Press and The New York Times reports of Trump's tweets said the accident had occurred on newly constructed track that was part of a recently upgraded line. The New York Times added that this project was part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, an act signed by President Barack Obama that aimed to address infrastructure shortfalls.
The New York Times editorial board said that the derailment is symptomatic of the Federal Government's failure to invest in infrastructure. It said that despite Trump seemingly acknowledging the problem, his administration's $630 million budget cuts to Amtrak, and a proposed plan to shift infrastructure costs down to state and local governments, would only serve to aggravate the problem.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) opened an investigation into the accident and dispatched a 20-member Go Team to the crash site. The NTSB said its investigators would be on-site for seven to ten days. One aspect of the investigation is whether the engineer lost situational awareness.
The NTSB said the train was traveling at 80 mph (130 km/h) at a point soon before it derailed. The speed limit on the curved track segment where the derailment occurred is 30 mph (48 km/h), but the preceding track segment north of Mounts Road has a limit of 79 mph (127 km/h). An initial review by the NTSB said that the train data recorders had been recovered from both locomotives. The recorder showed that the engineer had commented on the train's excessive speed six seconds before the derailment, and applied the brakes. The lead locomotive was traveling at 78 mph (126 km/h) when recording stopped. The NTSB said their investigation will take 12 to 24 months. A preliminary report into the accident was published on January 4, 2018.
The NTSB interviewed the train's engineer, who suffered serious injuries, in January. He told investigators that he did not see the advance speed sign or milepost 18, mistakenly thinking he was at milepost 17. The engineer applied the train's brakes after seeing the final speed signpost, immediately north of the curve.
In a second tweet 10 minutes later, Trump sent his condolences to people affected by the crash.
About six seconds prior to the derailment, the engineer made a comment regarding an over speed condition. The engineer's actions were consistent with the application of the locomotive's brakes just before the recording ended. It did not appear the engineer placed the brake handle in emergency-braking mode. The recording ended as the locomotive was tilting and the crew was bracing for impact. The final recorded speed of the locomotive was 78 mph.
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