What the Amtrak 501 Derailment Says About America’s Failure to Prevent Train Crashes

Photo: Pierce County Sheriff's Office via the Urbanist
Photo: Pierce County Sheriff's Office via the Urbanist

When an Amtrak train derailed yesterday near Tacoma, Washington, killing at least three and injuring dozens, none other than Donald Trump jumped right in with a tweet about his long-rumored infrastructure plan. It was ironic, to say the least, considering the GOP tax bill is expected to punish transit and passenger rail budgets.

But funding alone doesn’t account for what happened. Amtrak was running its first passenger train along an upgraded route from Seattle to Portland. The service is now shorter and more direct thanks to $180 million in federal stimulus funding.

While the investigation is just beginning, initial reports indicate that the train entered a tight curve at too high a speed. Sandy Johnston at Itinerant Urbanist puts the crash in context with a look at the American rail industry’s failure to prevent speed-related crashes:

Though I discourage speculation about root causes, it’s impossible not to note the scary parallels between this crash and two other recent overspeed crashes, Amtrak 188 at Frankford Junction, Philadelphia in 2015 and Metro-North at Spuyten Duyvil in the Bronx in 2013.

Amtrak 188 entered a 50 mph curve at 106 mph; in a situation eerily similar to today’s the Metro-North train entered a 30 mph curve at 82 mph. We still don’t really know the root cause of the Frankford Junction crash, though most theories have centered around the engineer (who is suffering from amnesia from the accident) losing attention somehow, without his recollections it’s impossible to know for sure. At Spuyten Duyvil the engineer suffered from sleep apnea and was apparently asleep as the train went around the curve (the same issue has come up in several other, more minor commuter rail incidents recently, including at Hoboken and Atlantic Terminal). Whatever the cause, overspeed incidents are all too common on American railroads.

Positive train control technology, mandated by Congress after a 2008 train crash, could have prevented these derailments. On the Cascades route, PTC is supposed to go live in 2018.

While the lack of any dedicated funding for PTC has played a role in lagging adoption, Johnston says the core problem is Amtrak’s dysfunctional safety culture:

Jason Laughlin of the Philadelphia Inquirer just published a piece yesterday (literally not kidding) building off of the NTSB’s scathing assessment of Amtrak’s “safety culture,” stemming from yet another fatal crash, this one at Chester, PA in 2016. Let’s just take a moment to appreciate that the two maintenance-of-way workers killed in the crash and the train engineer involved all tested positive for drugs, and yet that was not found to be a necessary contributing factor to the crash. Similar assessments of commuter railroads have been, while perhaps not as bad, not encouraging either.

American railroading has a lot of pathologies — a reactionary culture; toxic labor-management relations; an inability to accept innovation or new ideas — but few have the potential to affect riders as directly as the dysfunctional attitude that it sometimes seems everyone from the top down takes toward safety. It’s a problem that pervades both management and labor, and no one should escape the recriminations, when they come, unscathed. Alex Forrest has a good thread about the cultural contrasts between American and Japanese attitudes toward rail safety; but let’s just say the challenge of 21st century American railroading will be to change a culture where the idea that a train will go on the ground every so often is acceptable rather than unimaginable.

More recommended reading today: Tim Kovach crunches the numbers to show how fare hikes are accelerating a death spiral of declining transit ridership in Cleveland. Urban Milwaukee reports that the city’s streetcar is 90 percent complete. And the Bike Coalition of Greater Philadelphia considers Mayor Jim Kenney’s commitment to Vision Zero.

33 thoughts on What the Amtrak 501 Derailment Says About America’s Failure to Prevent Train Crashes

  1. Maybe it was unavoidable given geography/right of way requirements, and i get that PTC would help make a difference, but why is any rail infrastructure designed in a way that a train has to slow to 30 m.p.h. in order to be safe? That seems painfully slow.

  2. Looking at the map, that does look like a really tight corridor. You have a national wildlife refuge on the west end, a golf course they probably didn’t want to plow through to the north, a large empty space that I suspect belongs to the Nisqually Indian Tribe on the south, and all sorts of tidewater wetlands scattered all over the place, all before you start heading into built-up suburbs. I can understand the impulse to keep the corridor to the interstate. Here, the line was trying to shift to the other side of the highway as quickly as possible, with sort of a flyover.

    In short, think in order to avoid that curve, something big and expensive would have had to give.

  3. > Maybe it was unavoidable given geography/right of way requirements, and i get that PTC would help make a difference . . .

    You answered your own question.

    PTC is necessary, period. Even if we were somehow able to straighten out all the railroads in the US so that they could be ran at a constant speed, there would still be signal passed at danger and railcar collision incidents for which PTC is needed to prevent.

    PTC is also easier to implement than moving/altering rights-of-way.

  4. This new route was just an existing line that received upgrades for Amtrak travel. You probably would never design it like that now and there certainly were not the funds for a new curve and flyover.

  5. The route simply should not have been inaugurated without PTC in service. Political BS desires for ribbon cutting–there was a VIP ceremony Friday–were allowed to override safety.
    As to the location logistics, the RR route had been a slow speed freight bypass for decades; the bridge location dates to when US 99 was built. Restricted speed curves, are very common on most US rail routes–usually a result of surrounding geography and prior landownership. The “luxury” os straighter Interstate designs was a result of huge eminent public domain land acquisition often involving neighborhoods of low political influence.

  6. A lot of the conversation around railroad safety focuses on Positive Train Control, which is a system that automatically overrides humans to slow down a train that is operating above the speed limit. At the rate that we are going now, this system will save lives every year. Congress-persons have been pushing for this and obviously it is worth pursuing for that reason alone. But meanwhile, speeding motorists are probably killing 10,000 times that number of people per year. Where is the political conversation about establishing a system for motorists that will automatically prevent them from driving above the posted speed limits? A positive train control for drivers would save tens of thousands of lives a year. And no one would dare even suggest it. At a minimum, where is the political will to establish stricter enforcement against speeding? If anything, politicians are standing in the way of this goal by preventing speed camera enforcement. As a society we seem to passively waiting for self-driving cars to save us? But if anything, legislation is standing in the way of that too.

    The human mind is a curious thing. Commensurate with fatality and injury statistics, for every article about train safety, for every press release from elected officials calling for positive train control or greater rail safety, there should be 1,000 articles and press releases looking into what can be done to pursue motorist safety. Is licensing up to par? What can be done to tweak public messaging campaigns? What is the latest in enforcement? Etc. Etc. Etc. One thousand articles and press releases. But no one has the mental capacity for that.

    Given the order of magnitude of the danger posed by motor vehicles, the single best way to pursue public safety is mode shift – shifting trips made by people in motor vehicles onto trains, buses, walking, biking. It’s why New York has the safest per-capita driving rate in the country. Everyone rides the subway. How many lives does Amtrak save per year by getting people out of their cars? It’s impossible to say, but it might be able to estimate based on passenger-miles traveled. What IS possible to say, and what everyone talks about, is how many people Amtrak kills per year, and by focusing on that number we’re perhaps focusing on the wrong solutions.

    So for the sake of safety, people should be encouraged to ride the train. I fear that unfunded mandates, even for safety like Positive Train Control, may result in the opposite. If Amtrak and commuter railroads have to raise fares to pay for Positive Train Control, and some proportion of riders shift away to make the trip by car instead, and those people crash their cars proportionally, the unfunded mandate of PTC will have the perverse effect of eroding safety. I guess it would take an academic study to figure that out.

  7. Why is PTC taking so long to deploy? The technology to support automated adherence to fixed speed limits has been around for a half century. That simplified fixed speed limit PTC would have prevented yesterday’s crash as well as the other two similar crashes mentioned in this article.

    Meanwhile Google and others have been has been running fully automated robo-cars past my office every day for several years with only a few fender benders that were attributed to human drivers. The engineering required to successfully drive a car is orders of magnitude greater than simple fixed track speed control.

    There’s something deeply wrong here. Organizational inertia? A regulatory bureaucracy that is making perfect the enemy of good? Obstructionist trade unions? Greedy contractors massively inflating costs?

    Really this can’t be that hard. A call out to computer science teachers out there: Assign your students a project to design a smartphone ap that uses GPS to track location and speed and raise an alarm when the brakes need to be applied. If nothing else maybe passengers will download that ap and pound on the door to the engineer’s compartment to wake them up when the train exceeds the speed limit.

  8. The route has already been used by Sounder commuter trains. Would you not permit Greyhound to use a new highway ramp when other buses are using it without problems?

  9. It’s astonishing to learn that the main route between Seattle and Portland features a track alignment so tightly curved that it requires trains to slow to a speed that Stephensons Rocket achieved in 1830. And this was the newly upgrade route?

  10. It’s amazing how Japan’s bullet train/high speed rail system has never had a derailment or major accident in its 53 year history, while Amtrak which is far slower has had too many to count. There seems to be a fatal derailment every year on Amtrak. They should start calling it The Death Train. At this point you’d have to be crazy to ride on it.

  11. Do you not understand simple physics? Every vehicle has to slow drastically when making a turn. Even cars have to slow to around 10mph when making a turn at an intersection, unless you want to flip over and kill yourself.

  12. Building a good safety culture requires management and labor to work together and it requires people to be willing to change how they approach their work. Railroading’s toxic labor relations and resistance to change contribute to its poor safety culture.

  13. If you can’t understand that allowing a curve to remain on a route that requires a fairly drastic reduction in speed is an nightmare waiting to happen, maybe you need the physics refresher.

    The problem in the U.S. is that we allow this type of infrastructure design to remain when it’s clearly dangerous, and then act shocked when accidents happen. Sure, PTC would do wonders, but even that’s not fool proof, so why do we allow designs like this? The answer pure and simple is to save money, but the question then becomes at what cost?

  14. That does seem backwards. However, from what I’ve read, this new routing was intended to signiicantly reduce conflicts with freight trains, which apparently caused frequent delays on the old routing.

  15. But making it so that trains don’t have to slow to a ridiculous speed as a matter of normal operation would also decrease travel time and save fuel / electricity and make train travel more competitive with driving. We should do both.

  16. Interesting. That wikipedia page has a helpful list of similar incidents.

    Similar accidents[edit]
    Too fast around sharp curve[edit]
    United Kingdom Salisbury rail crash, 1906 – 28 killed
    United States Malbone Street Wreck, 1918 in New York – 98 killed
    United States Red Arrow crash, 1947 in Pennsylvania – 24 killed
    Australia Camp Mountain train disaster, 1947 – 16 killed
    Japan Hachik? Line derailment, February 1947 – 184 killed
    United Kingdom Sutton Coldfield train disaster, 1955 – 17 killed
    United Kingdom Morpeth rail crashes, 1969, 1984, 1994 – a total of 6 killed in three separate accidents
    United Kingdom Eltham Well Hall rail crash, 1972 – 6 killed
    United States Cajon Pass, 1989, 1996 – 8 killed (6 in 1989 and 2 in 1996).
    Italy Piacenza derailment, 1997 – 8 killed
    Germany Brühl train disaster, 2000 – 9 killed
    Australia Waterfall train disaster, 2003 – 7 killed
    Australia Cairns Tilt Train derailment, 2004 – 0 killed
    Spain Valencia Metro derailment, 2006 – 41 killed
    Spain Santiago de Compostela derailment, 2013 – 79 killed
    United States Spuyten Duyvil derailment – 4 killed
    United States 2015 Philadelphia train derailment – 8 killed
    Failure to check speed after stop and proceed[edit]
    Australia Glenbrook train disaster, 1999 – 7 killed

  17. Thanks for the info. It is crazy that deployment of PTC is contingent on reallocating a large block of the radio spectrum. Considering the low bandwidth PTC signalling requires, the 2MHz band allocated seems like overkill. Hopefully the FCC now keeps a few narrow slivers of the spectrum in their back pocket to respond quicker to important needs like this.

  18. The page states that it was a commuter train, not a bullet train.
    But still a valid counter example to JR’s safety culture.

  19. Japan’s bullet trains are all grade separated and were built as new lines for high speed. There might be turns on Japan’s HSR< but they are relatively gentle, so blowing those might not be a big deal.

    This was on an old freight line that was never targeted at high speed.

  20. The main route runs along the coast and while windy, it’s flat. This was more of a single-track freight spur that happened to be much shorter, but with the side effect of two sharp curves on the southern end. The train derailed on the first one.

  21. Very true.

    And worth clarifying for those who aren’t already aware is that while this new alignment of the Cascades route allowed trains to travel faster than the previous alignment, it is not considered high-speed rail. This alignment’s 79mph speed limit is Amtrak’s “normal” top speed in use throughout the system. (While no true high-speed rail line yet exists in America, Amtrak does have some routes that operate at “high-performance” speeds of 90mph, 110mph, and faster, but none of those routes are in the Pacific Northwest.)

  22. Indeed, there is not enough $$$ to go around to bring all passenger rail track curvatures up to faster standards. But that’s where PTC is supposed to function as a fail-safe.

    But we see a similar situation with Interstates: When they traverse mountain ranges, they tend to follow the contours of canyons as much as possible, and though they try to smooth out the curves, often speeds must be restricted to below the “normal” 65mph standard for safety reasons.

  23. What do you suggest? Not have any train routes that don’t go pretty much in one exact direction without any turns? That’s the only way to design things that would satisfy your complaint. It would eliminate the vast majority of possibilities for train routes.

  24. We do not have ANY sort of speed enforcement on our highways–and the lottery ## are that 40,000 Americans will have died in auto incidents this year–more BTW than by gunshots. So your Greyhound bus AND any other car or truck can use the highways either responsibly, or cause accidents at will. How many times have you witnessed someone “run”a red light?
    On many transit systems, that would trigger emergency brakes forcing the train to stop. Railroads decades ago developed cab signals and ATS to improve safety, but have never been forced to deploy those systems on 79mph or slower track segments. The PTC mandate is the first instance of universal safety enforcement on all routes and the RRs have dragged their feet while the Feds have refused to allocate the necessary spectrum slots.
    Fact still is, that electronic speed enforcement might have save 3 lives Monday.

  25. A good study would be to understand the flaws the original law that mandated ATS type technology on lines over 79 mph got us into the situation we are today.

    It sounds like the original law should’ve set the bar at 30mph if not lower.

  26. ” but let’s just say the challenge of 21st century American railroading will be to change a culture where the idea that a train will go on the ground every so often is acceptable rather than unimaginable.”

    This is not really explaining anything very well.

    US rail operations are predominantly freight. We are the cheapest and most efficient in the world at moving freight, and we move a lot more % of our cargo by rail than most other countries.

    Countries often cited for being good for passenger rail (Japan, Western Europe) are usually the reverse, because the two use-cases don’t really mix very well in terms of requirements.

    Freight’s efficient with big, slow trains. Said trains are also not that big a deal if they derail occasionally on some minor line with a low speed limit, because they’re going slow and most derailments aren’t dramatic. You send a crew out, put them back on the tracks, and the train gets rolling again. Often not more than a few hours, certainly not more than a few days.

    Dealing with that once in a while is much cheaper than maintaining all your freight rail lines to the standards that would be required to ensure no derailments.

    Point is, American rail culture matches it’s function. Serious passenger rail operations require a different culture.

  27. Every year there are lot of people are die in train accident. So if we can developed a technology to stop train accident it will be so more useful for us and we found a safety journey.

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