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Tacoma Rail engineers trained their Amtrak counterparts before Monday’s derailment

Engineers from Tacoma Rail, the city’s short line freight railroad, provided pilot training to Amtrak engineers prior to Monday’s derailment that killed three people and injured dozens of others.

The training occurred over multiple days in February, said Chris Gleason, spokesman for Tacoma Public Utilities, which oversees the rail operation.

It remains unclear whether the crew involved in Monday’s derailment near DuPont participated in the training.

The nature of the February training involved gaining familiarity with the route, using an Amtrak train, but it was not conducted at the higher speeds the passenger trains would use.

The maximum speed for Amtrak trains using the route was 79 miles per hour. The speed limit for the bridge where Monday’s derailment happened was 30 mph.

The training was provided under a contract with the state Department of Transportation and coordinated with Sound Transit, Gleason said, adding that Tacoma Rail did not maintain independent records of the sessions.

Questions about training, preparation and testing before the derailment figure to be key points of inquiry for investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board, which is overseeing the inquiry.

NTSB officials said the train was traveling at 80 mph before the derailment, citing information obtained from the onboard data recorder in the rear locomotive.

To date, officials have not labeled speed as the cause of the crash, saying it’s too early to be certain.

“Our mission is not to just understand what happened but why it happened so we can recommend changes,” said Bella Dinh-Zarr, an NTSB board member.

Dinh-Zarr said Amtrak crew members were trained on the route in the past two weeks but that officials would examine how training was conducted.

She said investigators were waiting to interview the engineer and an employee-in-training who was with him in the cab, both hurt in the crash, and another crew member.

The investigation is likely to dig into the training provided by Tacoma Rail.

The railroad’s engineers are familiar with the new Point Defiance Bypass that opened Monday to passenger traffic, the first run on a $181 million project reroute that began in 2010.

Until recently, the tracks and line of the bypass were part of Tacoma Rail’s regular freight routes. The railroad had used the route for 13 years, running twice weekly from DuPont to points further north.

In 2016, Tacoma Rail stopped regular operations on the track where the derailment occurred. In January, it ran a loaded freight train on the upgraded route, to assist with compacting and stabilizing the track structure.

According to Gleason, Amtrak engineers rode with Tacoma engineers during the February training, learning the ropes of the route, the timing and the signals. That training would have occurred in an Amtrak train.

“Our engineer is in the locomotive, in this case with the Amtrak engineer, and is going through that timetable and just different parts of the route,” she said.

Tacoma Rail did not maintain separate training records, but passed them on to Amtrak and the Transportation Department, Gleason said.

Thus, the number and names of individual engineers who received training remains unclear, along with specific details about the training sessions, and whether they were conducted at the envisioned speeds.

Tacoma’s engineers did not work at high speeds when their trains used the route in the course of regular business.

“When Tacoma Rail regularly operated on the track, it was certified for freight only, and the maximum authorized speed for Tacoma Rail trains in the section of the Amtrak derailment was 10 mph,” Gleason said. “The track has since been upgraded to accommodate passenger trains and higher speeds.”

Tacoma Rail engineers also conducted 10 hours of separate training in November with an Amtrak road foreman, who was tasked with training Amtrak engineers separately, Gleason said.

Information from The Seattle Times was included in this report.

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