Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Three are dead following the deadly accident on the opening morning of Amtrak’s rerouted, faster Cascades line near Tacoma.
Editor’s note: This is a breaking news story. This post will be updated as more details emerge.
An Amtrak train on its inaugural run from Seattle to Portland on Monday morning derailed on an overpass near Lacey, Washington, striking multiple vehicles traveling below on Interstate 5.
Three people on the train were killed,* reports the Tacoma News Tribune. No drivers or passengers on I-5 were killed, although injuries were reported. At least 77 people have been hospitalized. The train was carrying 78 passengers and 5 crew members, according to Amtrak. Traffic on I-5 will be impacted for days.
It is not yet clear what caused the derailment. “We were coming around the corner to take the bridge over I-5… and we went onto the ground,” a train operator told local responders, according to a dramatic audio recording of radio traffic. “We got cars everywhere and down onto the highway.”
Chris Karnes, the chair of the advisory board for Pierce County Public Transportation Benefit Area Corporation, was onboard the train, and had tweeted that the train seemed to have struck a truck. Pictures from the scene show a domino chain of smashed and crumpled train cars.
“We had just passed the city of DuPont and it seemed like we were going around a curve,” Karnes told CBS News. “All of a sudden, we felt this rocking and creaking noise, and it felt like we were heading down a hill. The next thing we know, we’re being slammed into the front of our seats, windows are breaking, we stop, and there’s water gushing out of the train. People were screaming.”
Monday was the first day of long-planned additional passenger service along the Cascades line, which Amtrak operates under contract from WSDOT. It was the culmination of years of upgrades to the tracks and signal systems—and, notably, a major reroute that had drawn considerable opposition from communities along the way over safety fears.
The Cascades line formerly operated on shared freight rail tracks of the Pacific Northwest Rail Corridor. The new route directed trains along an inland corridor parallel to Interstate 5 through Tacoma, Lakewood, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and DuPont, Washington. The bypass allowed WSDOT to increase trains speeds to 79 mph, shaving six minutes off Portland-to-Seattle trips. “It eliminates a major chokepoint for passenger trains near Point Defiance in Tacoma and separates them from freight trains that will continue to use the old waterfront route,” states a WSDOT press release from October announcing the line’s opening day.
But the new route faced stiff resistance from communities along the rerouted corridor. Some local leaders had specifically expressed concern about the speed of the train, reports The News Tribune, and had called for grade separations to keep trains at a distance from cars and pedestrians. Chillingly, Lakewood Mayor Don Anderson predicted earlier this month that a deadly accident on the new route was only a matter of time. He also criticized the state for not using federal funds to pay for safety improvements. “Come back when there is that accident, and try to justify not putting in those safety enhancements, or you can go back now and advocate for the money to do it, because this project was never needed and endangers our citizens,” Anderson told KOMO News.
It’s not yet clear how fast the train was operating when it left the tracks, but the Monday derailment did not appear to involve a grade-crossing collision.
Prior the opening of the service, Amtrak’s Cascades website underscored the speed issue: The site features a prominent safety warning alerting pedestrians and drivers to stay away from the tracks and the newly sped-up locomotives. An FAQ-styled section reads:
Why do trains have to run so fast? Why can't we just slow them down?
Railroad companies and their customers like to operate trains as fast as good engineering and safety practices allow. Ultimately, time is money in the competitive world of transportation and freight mobility. Requiring slower train speeds would likely have a number of negative impacts.
The new Siemens Charger locomotives running on the new Cascades route were equipped for positive train control, the much-touted modern safety system that automatically brakes trains when dangerous situations are detected. But it appears that the sysyem was not yet activated, according to a WSDOT press release. The system was planned to go live corridor-wide in 2018.
This is the second derailment on along the Cascades line this year: Another train left the tracks south of Seattle in July 2017, with minor injuries reported. That incident, which was on a different portion of the route, was blamed on driver error and excessive speed.
Karnes, the Pierce County transit advisor, had been live-tweeting the ride just before the crash. “Wow this train is fast,” he said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that six people were killed.