When passengers boarded Amtrak train 501 in the early light of Monday morning, they did so with a bit of fanfare; they were, after all, the inaugural passengers on Amtrak’s new route from Seattle to Portland.
Sound Transit tweeted a photo of the train saying, “New @amtrakcascades neighbor looking (thumbs up) on the first day of service from Tacoma Dome Station.”
The direct inland route, dubbed The Point Defiance bypass, took seven years and $181 million to complete. Though it took passengers away from the scenic coastline, the new route was touted to shave ten minutes off travel time between Tacoma and points south.
Chris Karnes, chairman of Pierce Transit’s advisory board, wanted to be counted as one of the train’s first passengers. Minutes after the train left Tacoma’s new Amtrak station, Karnes tweeted. “Wow this train is fast.”
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Fast, indeed. Transitdocs.com, a website that maps Amtrak train locations and speeds using data from the railroad’s train tracker app, says Train 501 was going 81.1 mph moments before it plunged onto Interstate 5 in Dupont.
Cars on the freeway screeched to a halt. The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department confirmed multiple drivers were injured but none killed. Witnesses reported people, many in military uniforms or morning workout gear, getting out of their cars and rushing to assist victims.
Karnes relayed these messages shortly after the crash: “massive damage” and “people hurt.”
The scene was the stuff of nightmares; pictures left little doubt the crash would include fatalities. At the time of this writing, at least six people had died and 77 were transported to hospitals.
President Trump tweeted: “Seven trillion dollars spent in the Middle East while our roads, bridges, tunnels, railways (and more) crumble! Not for long!”
Ten minutes later, Trump tweeted again: “My thoughts and prayers are with everyone involved in the train accident in Dupont, Washington. Thank you to all of our First Responders who are on the scene.”
We share the president’s latter sentiments and extend our sympathies to the victims and our appreciation to the first responders.
There will be time for “I told you so”s, including some from this editorial board. No doubt the derailment will, and should, revive serious discussions about the readiness of this track.
One Amtrak derailment is too many, and Pierce County has had two commuter trains derail in the past six months.
In July, an Amtrak train hauling 267 passengers and five rail workers up from Portland crossed a 103-year-old steel drawbridge in Steilacoom, about one mile south of the Chambers Bay golf course, and failed to slow down, triggering the derail switch.
Fortunately, catastrophe in Steilacoom was averted; three cars left the track but remained vertical; only minor injuries were reported. The accident was blamed on a convergence of human error and outdated equipment.
Soon we will learn the particulars of whether human error or failure of equipment, or both, played parts in this accident.
In the meantime, the words spoken to the state Department of Transportation back in December by Lakewood Mayor Don Anderson echo loudly:
“Come back when there is that accident, and try to justify not putting in those safety enhancements, or you can go back now and advocate for the money to do it, because this project was never needed and endangers our citizens.”