(CN) – A deadly 2017 Amtrak derailment in Washington state was caused by a dangerous curved track and the railway’s failure to use technology designed to automatically brake ahead of such curves, according to a final report adopted Tuesday by the National Transportation Safety Board.
The inaugural run of a new, more direct line between Tacoma and Portland derailed with 83 people aboard after careening around a curve and sailing off a bridge over Interstate 5 at 50 miles per hour above the speed limit. Three people were killed and 57 people injured in the Dec. 18, 2017, wreck, including some who were driving on I-5 when the train crashed down onto their cars. The wreck caused an estimated $25.8 million in damage.
On Tuesday, the NTSB cleared the train’s conductor of wrongdoing, finding he was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol and was not fatigued, distracted or impaired.
Instead, the board said the wreck was caused by Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority’s failure to make safety adjustments coming into the hazardous, 30-mph curve where the derailment happened, in light of the fact that Amtrak had not installed Positive Train Control – the safety mechanism that adjusts speeds automatically.
NTSB chairman Robert L. Sumwalt said Tuesday the lack of such technology caused the wreck.
“Could this accident have been prevented?” Sumwalt asked. “The answer is a resounding yes. At the simplest level, Positive Train Control prevents derailments, period. The sooner it’s implemented nationwide, the sooner it will prevent derailments like this one.”
While the Federal Railroad Administration has found Positive Train Control would reduce risk of fatalities by 40%, the agency decided not to implement the technology immediately and has continued to delay requiring its use.
Another problem the board identified was the train Amtrak ran that day. The Talgo Series VI train was constructed before the latest safety requirements were passed in 1999 and did not meet current safety standards – although it was grandfathered in after the Federal Railroad Administration approved Amtrak’s petition in 2000.
The old design allowed parts to break free within the car where the three fatalities occurred. The flying parts broke windows, leading to the fatal ejections of two passengers, and shot through the carriage where they hit the third passenger who was killed in the wreck.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Chairman Sumwalt questioned board staff member Mike Hiller about the implications of the old train design’s roller assembly, which detached during the wreck.
“So what you’re really saying is had the roller assembly not detached we may not have had fatal injuries?” Sumwalt asked.
“Your observations are correct,” Hiller replied.
After the wreck, Amtrak was supposed to report its plan to the board for the continued safe use of Talgo trains but has not yet done so, board members said.
The board issued 26 new safety recommendations, including that trains install anchors to secure child safety seats like the one a couple brought on the doomed train trip. The couple’s infant was in the unsecured baby seat until moments before the wreck, when the baby’s father took it to the bathroom to change its diaper. One minute later, according to investigation records, the train derailed and the baby seat sailed out of a broken window before being crushed next to a sideways train car. The child survived in its father’s arms.
“The child car seat essentially became a missile and was actually thrown out of the derailed train car,” board staff member Sheryl Harley said Tuesday.
“Think about that next time you have to change a diaper, that it may not be the worst thing in the world,” Sumwalt said.
But Sumwalt said the most important thing is for the Federal Railroad Administration to finally require Positive Train Control.
“We want the FRA to move,” Sumwalt said. “They’re saying it will be done by September. It’s past time to get it done. There’s no other way to put it. It’s time. It’s past time for the FRA to act. As we’ve seen today, lives depend on the issuance of that rule.”