The investigation into Monday’s Amtrak derailment will take shape as these types do: figuring out whether the crash was an operational, mechanical or human failure.
Investigators will “immediately lock down all the data points and will secure those incident recorders on the train to capture the recording of what was happening on scene at that time,” said Keith Millhouse, a rail safety expert, in an interview Monday with The News Tribune.
Millhouse served 12 years on the board of directors for the Southern California Metrolink system. In 2008, during his tenure, a Union Pacific locomotive slammed into a Metrolink train in Los Angeles’ Chatsworth neighborhood, killing 25 and hurting dozens of others. During that time, he became board chairman.
Recalling the investigation and his experience with that incident, Millhouse said red flags came to mind upon hearing Monday’s news.
First off, he said, “with the train approaching a curve, the question of overspeed comes into play. Was the train going too fast to handle a curve?”
Another question: Was “positive train control” technology in place?
That involves on-board computers in communication with satellites that can take control of the train if its speed isn’t appropriate for where it is on its journey.
“The computer knows the route and how fast you should be going,” Millhouse said. “If satellite says too fast, then the computer takes over the operation of train.”
Positive train control also “can detect work being done on track, or workers out there and the satellite and computer would know and slow the train,” Millhouse said
SoCal Metrolink was the first commuter rail operator to install the technology.
“Unfortunately,” Millhouse said, “Amtrak has been slow in implementing this across the country. The Northeast corridor is the priority.”
CNN reported Monday that Amtrak’s president said positive train control was not activated at the time of Monday’s derailment.
Last summer, after an Amtrak Cascades train derailed in Steilacoom, The News Tribune reported in July that Amtrak wasn’t yet running positive train control technology on the West Coast, citing federal filings.
The National Transportation Safety Board, at a news conference in Washington, D.C., said it was “too early” know whether crash avoidance technology was in place on the train.
The train would have an incident recorder, similar to an aircraft’s “black box,” Millhouse said.
“It’s not as sophisticated as a black box on a plane but will tell speeds, when the throttle was set and when brakes were applied,” he said.
If a mechanical failure caused the crash, Millhouse said, it might involve “a catastrophic failure of the wheel system ... or an incursion on the track.”
A track “incursion” can be an intentional derailment, authorized work on the track or something unauthorized, such as people or something on the track.
From what he could see from footage of the scene, Millhouse said, it appeared “the engine was at the back of the train, with a ‘cab’ car up front.”
An engineer will sit in the cab car, which controls the train’s operation but is not pulling the cars, Millhouse said.
If the train hit something on the track, a cab car “cannot knock debris as much as a regular locomotive,” he noted.
Given that, Millhouse said, “it doesn’t take much to derail those front wheels, and then you’re at the mercy of physics at that point.”
As for how soon the service will be back online for that route, it depends. Millhouse estimated it would be “at least two days at earliest to four days,” as the NTSB secures the crash scene.
He estimated the NTSB will take a year to release its final report.
But, he said, it won’t take that long to “get a good idea what transpired, not withstanding their thorough investigation.”