The derailment of an Amtrak Cascades train Sunday in Steilacoom happened in a sudden convergence of human error and outdated equipment.
The scene unfolded at a 103-year-old steel drawbridge that is the last of its kind on U.S. rail lines, about 1 mile south of the Chambers Bay golf course.
There, early on a sunny afternoon, the bridge tender walked from a nearby house onto the span to run the machinery that would raise the lift bridge.
Three pleasure boats were sailing in from Puget Sound to Chambers Creek’s marina, east of the bridge. The tender raised the bridge to allow the boats through and then began lowering the span again.
While that happened, Amtrak 506 hauled 267 passengers and four rail workers up from Portland on the north-south railroad tracks owned by BNSF Railway.
If on schedule, the train would have arrived at Tacoma’s station at 2:34 p.m., hit Seattle at 3:50 p.m. and continued all the way to Vancouver, British Columbia.
To pass over the BNSF-owned bridge under normal conditions, the train needed to slow to 40 mph. Instead, the locomotive rolled ahead at a higher speed, according to an Amtrak statement released Thursday.
When the bridge is impassable, the northbound tracks have two solid-yellow warning signals, then a red for stop, said Mike Elliott, a longtime train engineer turned lobbyist.
A set of split-rail “derailers” mounted to the tracks would keep a train moving unsafely from hitting the bridge.
Amtrak’s statement did not address whether any signals were on. The rail carrier said its engineer erred by not slowing, and that the train’s speed triggered the derail switch.
A photo posted to Twitter by West Pierce Fire and Rescue shows a passenger car’s wheel resting on the derailer, instead of on the straight track.
About 2:30 p.m., with Amtrak 506 rolling in fast, the BNSF worker manning the bridge jumped off into the water and the train skidded to a hard halt.
The locomotive toppled onto its side. Three cars left the tracks but remained vertical.
Elliot said the derailment matched what would have occurred had the engineer missed a stop signal.
“It’s a setup for that type of thing to happen if somebody loses track of where they’re at exactly,” said Elliott, who represents the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.
Steilcoom resident Mike Caillier watched the derailment play out from the hillside house above Chambers Creek where he has lived for 20 years.
“The three yachts had just come in, and I don’t think the bridge was all the way secured yet,” Caillier, 49, said Thursday while cleaning a 20-pound king salmon in his front yard.
After he watched the train tip over, Caillier went to his fishing boat down to the marina in case he needed to help with the rescue.
Emergency response teams from across the region similarly streamed in. A doctor cruising the Sound moored his dinghy nearby and began checking passengers. Luckily, they weren’t intensely needed.
Minor injuries were reported in the derailment. Four passengers were taken to St. Clair Hospital, according to audio of an Amtrak official’s 911 call obtained by The News Tribune.
The BNSF caretaker on duty Thursday to run what the company calls Bridge 14 said his co-worker had jumped into the water — about a 10-foot drop. Another 911 caller from the scene reported the bridge tender made it out of the water safely and was walking around.
BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas said the bridge employee suffered minor injuries when he leaped into the water.
“If I had a train bearing down on me, I would probably do the same thing,” Caillier said.
In the aftermath of the derailment, Amtrak mustered shuttle buses to ferry passengers onward to Seattle, where some arrived four hours late.
After investigators ruled human error had caused the derailment, the train’s engineer was “taken out of service,” Amtrak said. Company officials would not say whether this meant firing or suspension, and would not provide any information about the engineer’s work history.
Elliott, the engineers’ union representative, said the Amtrak engineer could face sanctions or termination for the derailment.
“If it turns out that there was operator error, that would be a very serious lapse,” he said.
Two of the conditions that allowed the derailment to happen will soon disappear from the South Sound landscape.
An in-progress national rail upgrade to a computer-controlled braking system called positive train control would have slowed the train to meet track requirements — Amtrak isn’t yet running that technology on the west coast, according to federal filings.
Positive train control — a computerized system that would have triggered the train’s brakes so it meet track requirements or stopped it if the bridge wasn’t passable — will become mandatory nationwide at the end of 2018.
And this fall, the opening of the Point Defiance bypass will remove Amtrak’s 10 daily trains from Bridge 14 entirely, routing them on a more direct inland route between Puget Sound and points south.