Together, South Sound leaders blow whistle for train safety. Will it be heard?

Closure of I-5 to continue as damaged rail cars are removed

WSDOT spokesperson Travis Phelps said southbound Interstate 5 will be closed through at least Wednesday around the deadly train derailment near DuPont.
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WSDOT spokesperson Travis Phelps said southbound Interstate 5 will be closed through at least Wednesday around the deadly train derailment near DuPont.

Refusing to put an inexcusable fatal train wreck in the rearview mirror, the Pierce County Council last week wisely joined other local governments in adopting a resolution opposing restoration of the Point Defiance bypass until more than two dozen safety measures are enacted.

The bypass would reroute Amtrak trains away from the scenic but congested Puget Sound shoreline, diverting passengers through South Tacoma and Lakewood before reconnecting with the usual rail route in Thurston County.

Since 1998 the Washington Department of Transportation has promised rail commuters traveling between Seattle and Portland a shorter commute time via the bypass.

Almost 20 years later, the Amtrak Cascades, carrying 77 people, finally took its inaugural run on Dec. 18, 2017. But the southbound train traveling at 80 miles per hour approached a sharp turn meant for speeds no greater than 30 mph.

Three people died; dozens more were injured. Pictures from the derailment have left an indelible mark. A trial for those seeking damages began this week.

The investigation conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board uncovered a glaring system-wide failure involving WSDOT, Sound Transit (which owns the bypass track) and Amtrak. Without a doubt, the catastrophe could have been avoided had safety measures been in place.

The federal findings were damning: Sound Transit omitted the final activities of the certification process, including identification of the accident curve.

Amtrak delayed needed safety improvements and failed to adequately train its crew. The engineer had only one southbound training run before the fatal crash.

Worse, there was no independent oversight body making sure all safety measures were in place. WSDOT failed in that capacity.

It’s why we applaud the County Council and elected leaders in Lakewood, Steilacoom and DuPont for trying to hold WSDOT, Sound Transit and Amtrak accountable to high standards.

The unspoken cry of their council votes: “Never again in our backyard.”

When asked why the county stepped in, Council Chairman Doug Richardson of Lakewood told us Wednesday: “At the end of the day, it’s about public safety.”

Fortunately, stronger commitments to safety have emerged from this sobering tragedy. State rail spokeswoman Janet Matkin assured us that federal recommendations, 26 in all, are being addressed.

The list goes way beyond Positive Train Control, the GPS-controlled automatic braking system that has since been installed along the entire Cascades route from Blaine, Washington, to Eugene, Oregon. Recommendations include replacing the structurally vulnerable passenger railcars, fixing emergency radio frequencies and implementing a whole new safety management system on all of Amtrak’s operations.

When asked if local governments could halt restoration of the bypass route, Matkin said, “You have to remember, there’s a difference between a recommendation and a requirement.”

We say, ignore them at passengers’ peril.

Eliminating the longtime railway bottleneck along Puget Sound is still a good idea. And the $181 million that’s been poured into this 18 miles of track should not become another monument to government waste, aka a “bypass to nowhere.”

But safety is paramount.

Matkin said progress has been swift. Amtrak plans to add two commuter round trips per day between Seattle and Portland as soon as the bypass is operational.

Indeed, all parties are motivated. They have trains to catch.