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Engineer commented on train’s high speed seconds before fatal crash

Amtrak train was going 80 on a 30-mph track, according to NTSB

Train 501 was going 80 on a 30-mph track when it derailed Monday sending cars down onto I-5, killing at least three passengers.
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Train 501 was going 80 on a 30-mph track when it derailed Monday sending cars down onto I-5, killing at least three passengers.

About six seconds before Amtrak 501 crashed Monday on its inaugural run to Portland, the engineer made a comment about the train’s high speed.

The final recorded speed of the train as it rounded a curve near DuPont was 78 miles per hour — 48 mph faster than the curve’s 30 mph speed limit.

The train, carrying 78 passengers and seven crew members, derailed on a bridge over Interstate 5, killing three and injuring dozens.

The National Transportation Safety Board released the information Friday after a review of the lead locomotive’s data and video recorders, referred to as the “black box.”

The agency did not release the engineer’s exact comments right before the crash. In a news release, it did say cameras facing the train’s operators did not record them using electronic devices before the derailment.

The engineer appeared to apply the locomotive’s brakes just before the recording ended, the video showed. However, it did not appear the engineer placed the brakes in emergency mode, the NTSB said.

The data recorder’s video ended as the locomotive was tilting and the crew bracing for impact, the release says.

The engineer would have been familiar with the route, and had a document called a timetable, said Marc Robertson, road foreman of engines for Tacoma Rail.

A timetable details the speed limits for sections of the track, depending on the type of cargo, shows the locations of stations and signals, as well as the steepness of upcoming track.

“Every engineer and every conductor should have that document with them when they operate the train,” Robertson said of the timetable.

Speed limits are listed in a dense chart organized by mile marker.

For the section where derailment occurred, 30 mph is listed for passenger trains. The speed listed before that section of track is 79 mph.

Robertson, who’s been in the rail industry for nearly 40 years, is in charge of Tacoma Rail’s locomotive engineers and their training.

Tacoma Rail once operated on the section of rail on which the Amtrak train derailed, and Robinson said he’s familiar with the upgrades made to the area to prepare it for passenger service.

An engineer driving the route would see reflective signs on the side of the tracks indicating an upcoming speed change, Robertson said. Such signs would be visible even in the pre-dawn hours because of their reflectivity, he said.

Before the curve, the signs would say 30 mph in black lettering on a reflective yellow background, he said.

With current technology in place, no audible signal or alarm would sound if the train were traveling too fast, Robertson said.

“Not without positive train control,” he said, referring to a safety system that would automatically slow a speeding train if the engineer does not respond to a computer’s warnings.

“With PTC I would say there would be an audible,” he said. “The train would automatically stop and would not have let them go into that curve at that speed.”

Congress has delayed implementing the technology until next year, despite many calling for its use.

For instance, the NTSB said positive train control could have prevented an over-speed crash in Philadelphia two years ago in which eight people were killed and dozens of passengers hurt.

The NTSB expects to take one to two years to fully investigate the DuPont wreck, though a preliminary report could be released in coming days.

So far, six people have said they intend to sue Amtrak over Monday’s crash.

A representative from Chicago-based Clifford Law offices told The News Tribune that the individuals bring suit have asked for “absolute anonymity” for now.

National Transportation Safety Board member Bella Dinh-Zarr answers questions during a press conference at DuPont City Hall on Tuesday.

Kate Martin: 253-597-8542, @KateReports

Debbie Cockrell: 253-597-8364, @Debbie_Cockrell

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