The trackway where an Amtrak Cascades train derailed Sunday afternoon contains a special switch that’s designed to nudge a train off-course as a last resort so it won’t collide with the bridge just ahead if the drawspan is open.
Investigations are continuing into how and why the Amtrak Cascades 506 went off-track with 267 people aboard. Some were bumped and bruised but avoided major injuries.
It’s the first time since Cascades service began in 1999 that railcars toppled with passengers aboard.
Sunday’s train was heading north from Oregon toward Seattle when it derailed 50 to 100 yards before the Chambers Bay drawbridge south of Tacoma, according to the BNSF Railway, which owns the tracks.
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That span, built in 1914 using a distinctive, cable-free design, crosses Chambers Creek next to a boat marina. Just ahead lies the Chambers Bay golf course, site of the 2015 U.S. Open tournament.
On either side are compact, switchlike devices known as “derails” between the twin rails. They exist around the country. At this location they could prevent a catastrophe if a train were hurtling toward a partly or fully opened drawspan.
“They do exist in the vicinity. Whether that was a contributor to the incident, we don’t know,” said Jason Biggs, operations manager for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) rail division, which oversees regional Cascades service.
The Federal Railroad Administration is investigating alongside Amtrak and BNSF, officials said. Amtrak spokeswoman Vernae Graham said Monday the agency had no comment yet about possible causes.
The locomotive, a baggage car and two passenger cars left the rails and tilted sideways. The train speed limit there is 40 mph.
Three passengers have told The Seattle Times they saw someone who appeared to have jumped into the water from the bridge area.
Zahr Said, a law professor at the University of Washington, was in the lounge car on the way back from a blues festival in Portland when the train came to “a very abrupt stop.”
A conductor came jogging through the car saying under his breath “emergency, emergency, emergency,” Said recalled.
From their seats several cars in front of the train’s lounge car, Said’s husband texted her to say he’d seen a cloud of smoke and a worker jump off the bridge ahead of the train. She later saw the worker, wearing his orange safety vest, soaking wet.
Last summer, a Cascades train derailed in Tukwila, but it was going less than 5 mph and only the locomotive left the track.
“This is one of the safest modes of travel out there,” WSDOT’s Biggs said. “We’ve gone millions of passenger miles over the history of the program, and this is the first derailment with passengers on board, with only bumps and bruises, which is fortunate.”
Rail incidents conjure the common lament about the backwardness of U.S. infrastructure in general.
However, Ron Pate, WSDOT rail director, said he recently rode through the Chambers Bay area. He said BNSF pays close attention to it and that he doubts Sunday’s incident can be blamed on worn-out equipment.
“That’s always been well maintained. We’ve never run into any problems in that area,” he said.
Five of the Cascades trains every day travel in each direction, to and from Oregon, along with one Amtrak Coast Starlight train each direction to and from California.
Cascades trains running between Vancouver, B.C.; Seattle; Portland; and Eugene, Oregon, carried a total 817,000 people last year, a 10 percent increase from 2015, WSDOT’s annual report says.
Route to change
By this year’s end, Amtrak trains will cease to go through the spectacular corridor along Puget Sound, winding by Point Defiance, the Narrows Bridges and Chambers Bay.
Instead, they will shift to a straight new bypass track, now being completed upland from Lakewood to Nisqually. Related improvements at Freighthouse Square near downtown Tacoma will allow Amtrak to stop there and continue through, sharing a dedicated passenger line with Sounder commuter trains. Freight will move separately along the Sound.
The shift, funded using a share of WSDOT’s $800 million in federal high-speed rail grants, ought to save 10 minutes per trip and greatly improve reliability, Pate said.
Whereas the Cascades trains now have an on-time rate of 70 to 80 percent, BNSF committed to 88 percent next year in a new contract, said Pate.
Six of eight new locomotives have arrived in Seattle and are undergoing inspections, he said.
Meanwhile, a high-tech positive train control system, using satellites to avert collisions, will be tested on the Cascades early next year, and is scheduled to be fully operating nationwide by the end of 2018, said Graham. The technology will sound alarms and automatically halt trains that run a stop signal or otherwise become hazardously close to one another.
While the new Pierce County bypass eliminates freight interference, passenger trains going up to 79 mph could be more susceptible to collisions with cars and people through populated communities — which has caused neighborhood worry over the years.