Derailed train leaves behind major mess and many questions

Crews remove derailed Amtrak train from Chambers Bay causeway

Crews put a derailed Amtrak locomotive back on the tracks in Steilacoom next to the bridge over Chambers Creek and tow it away.
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Crews put a derailed Amtrak locomotive back on the tracks in Steilacoom next to the bridge over Chambers Creek and tow it away.

As crews worked Monday to clear railroad tracks south of Chambers Bay where an Amtrak passenger train derailed the day before, investigators explored what caused the wreck of the northbound train just before it crossed a 100-year-old steel bridge.

Heavy machinery and numerous workers clad in orange vests blocked both sets of rails in Steilacoom to remove the locomotive engine and three passenger cars that left the tracks.

Only minor injuries were reported among the 267 riders on the train, Amtrak officials said.

The workers righted the toppled locomotive shortly after 8 a.m., then replaced and repaired the tracks to restore full service by evening, said a spokesman for BNSF Railway, which owns the tracks.

The tracks near Chambers Bay handle about 60 trains a day; 10 of those are Amtrak runs between the Portland and Seattle stations, BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas said.

On Friday, a BNSF inspector visited the tracks where the derailment occurred, and a crew replaced rail ties in the area earlier this year, he said.

Statewide, BNSF has spent $500 million on track upgrades over the last three years, he said.

Melonas said Amtrak officials are leading the investigation. In a statement, Amtrak said the derailment is under investigation and did not elaborate.

The spot where Amtrak train 506 derailed was just before where the train would have rolled onto a historic steel lift bridge built in 1914 and is believed to be the last of its kind. BNSF reconstructed the 97-foot bridge a decade ago, according to a company newsletter.

The section of track adjoining the bridge relies on an older, signal-based system to regulate train traffic. In such setups, a piece of track equipment called a “derailer” often is used to keep trains that miss a stop signal from rolling ahead, said Mike Elliott, a spokesman for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers.

Melonas would not comment on whether such equipment was used on the Steilacoom tracks where Amtrak 506 derailed.

A federal mandate to add an automatic-braking mechanism called positive train control to all railroad lines has not yet reached the Steilacoom tracks.

Positive train control, according to the Federal Railroad Administration, must be installed on all railroad main lines by the end of 2018 after its original 2015 deadline was pushed back.

BNSF reported to federal officials at the end of March that it had completed positive train control on 64 percent of the 11,424 miles of track that would need it. Melonas could not say when it would be installed on the stretch where Sunday’s derailment occurred.

Even had the railroad installed positive train control equipment, it would not have saved Amtrak 506.

An Amtrak spokeswoman said the passenger carrier’s West Coast trains haven’t begun using the system. In the most recent update to the Federal Railroad Administration, Amtrak said its lines on the Boston-to-Washington, D.C. and in Michigan have activated the system.

On Twitter and by phone, passenger Nathan Hinkle, 25, of Portland, reported a disjointed experience from the moment Amtrak 506 jarred to a halt.

“It was already going kind of slow, but it just very suddenly slammed on the brakes,” he said. “The floor of the car wasn’t flat anymore. We were no longer on flat ground.”

Following evacuation instructions from Amtrak workers, Hinkle and his girlfriend left behind the backpacks they had carried on for their trip to Seattle. At an evacuation area with little shade available, a woman fainted, Hinkle said.

After three hours, a shuttle bus picked up the waiting passengers, then turned back on its way to Seattle over a miscommunication about nonexistent remaining passengers, Hinkle said. He arrived in Seattle at 8 p.m., nearly six hours after the derailment.

His belongings — clothing and his supplies to manage his type 1 diabetes — weren’t with him. He remarked on Twitter that he was underdressed for a cool Seattle summer morning.

“We’re still wearing the clothes we were wearing when we got on the train yesterday,” he said Monday afternoon, “which is just T-shirts and shorts. We didn’t have any toiletries or a warm jacket or anything like that. We asked the lady from Amtrak if they could help us with that. She just said, ‘Nope.’”

Amtrak offered midday Monday to reimburse some expenses for clothing and other items, Hinkle said.

In a statement Monday afternoon, an Amtrak spokeswoman said passengers’ belongings were being gathered and would be returned. No timeline was given.

Hinkle said by phone that he was carrying his insulin pump but not much more of what his condition requires.

“I had enough to survive,” he said, but in the next 24 hours, I’m gonna need the stuff that was in that pack.”

Amtrak, he said, had told him there were six train cars’ worth of passenger belongings that would need to be sorted through.

Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693, @dcnunnally