DUPONT, WASHINGTON (REUTERS, NYTIMES, AFP) - An Amtrak passenger train that derailed in Washington state, killing at least three people, was travelling 80 miles (130 km) per hour in a 30 mile-per-hour zone, a federal safety official said late Monday (Dec 18).
Bella Dinh-Zarr, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, told journalists "it's too early to tell" why the train was traveling at such a fast speed, an estimate that came from preliminary information obtained from an event data recorder in the rear locomotive.
The Amtrak train, which Dinh-Zarr said was likely carrying some 80 people, was traveling on a new route for the first time before plunging off a bridge onto a busy highway, leaving nearly 100 people injured in the accident.
The crash, occurred at 7.40am (11.40pm Singapore time) and about midway between Tacoma and Olympia, according to a federal official. Thirteen of the train's 14 cars jumped the tracks near the town of DuPont, Washington State Patrol spokesman Brooke Bova said. Amtrak has said there were 86 aboard, 80 of them passengers.
Five vehicles and two trucks were involved in the accident, and the highway was littered with fragments of the bridge and tree branches. Some motorists were injured but none died, authorities said.
"We have been told there are three casualties at this time," spokeswoman Bova told a news conference, adding that about 100 people were taken to nearby hospitals. Ten people have serious injuries and dozens have been released, the Washington State Patrol said.
But investigators were still going through the wreckage and could not say for certain how many people have died.
The derailment caused "multiple fatalities," Pierce County Sheriff's Department spokesman Ed Troyer said, without giving a specific number.
Several hours after the crash in DuPont, Washington, train cars remained dangling from the overpass, with others strewn across Interstate 5. Bova said it was still possible that passengers remained inside some of the cars perched on the overpass, as rescuers have not been able to access them due to concerns about their stability.
Some people escaped by kicking out windows, passenger Chris Karnes told local news outlet KIRO 7.
"All of a sudden, we felt this rocking and creaking noise, and it felt like we were heading down a hill," Karnes said.
"The next thing we know, we're being slammed into the front of our seats, windows are breaking, we stop, and there's water gushing out of the train. People were screaming."
The derailment occurred on the first day Amtrak trains began using the new inland route between the Washington cities of Tacoma and Olympia, part of a project to cut travel time, according to an October news release from the state's transportation department.
The rerouting takes trains along I-5, enabling them to reach speeds of 127kmh.
Monday's southbound Seattle-to-Portland train, whose scheduled departure time was 6am, was the first to take the new route, which uses tracks owned by a commuter line.
It was not immediately clear whether the derailment was connected to the new route. A National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) member told reporters it was too early to say what may have caused the crash, and that the NTSB was sending investigators to the scene.
A statement on Monday from the state transportation department said the track had undergone "weeks of inspection and testing" before Monday.
A train crew member told an emergency dispatcher that the train came around a corner before the bridge and then "we went on the ground," according to an audio recording posted by Broadcastify.com.
Asked whether everyone was OK, the crew member replied, "I am still figuring that out. We got cars everywhere and down onto the highway." The dispatcher also requested the caller's location, and he responded, "As soon as I know exactly where all of my train is, I'll let you know."
Amtrak's co-chief executive, Richard Anderson, declined to speculate on the cause while speaking to reporters on Monday. He confirmed that positive train control (PTC), a system that automatically slows trains if they are going too fast, was not installed on the tracks.
By law, PTC must be installed on all passenger rail systems by 2018, a deadline that has repeatedly been delayed after rail agencies said implementation was more complicated than anticipated. Sound Transit commuter line, which owns the track, reported in September that it did not yet have PTC in operation. US President Donald Trump said the crash illustrated the need for infrastructure improvements.
The rerouting project was budgeted at $180.7 million and funded by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), according to the state transportation department. The work was done by Sound Transit and reviewed by the FRA, the department said on Monday. I-5 is the West Coast's major north-south highway, running between the US-Mexican border in San Diego, California, and the border with Canada in Washington.
The mayor of a town along the new route warned early this month that high-speed trains were dangerously close to cars and pedestrians.
"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," Lakewood Mayor Don Anderson told transportation officials, according to Seattle's KOMO News.
The derailment was Amtrak's second in Washington state this year. On July 2, a southbound train with more than 250 people aboard derailed in the town of Steilacoom, just a few miles north of Monday's derailment. No serious injuries were reported.
In May 2015, an Amtrak train derailed in Philadelphia, killing eight people and injuring more than 200. The NTSB concluded the driver became distracted by radio transmissions and lost track of where he was.
An Amtrak train traveling from New York in April 2016 hit a backhoe working on railroad tracks in Chester, Pennsylvania, killing two maintenance workers and injuring 41. That crash prompted criticism from the NTSB about Amtrak's safety record.
Amtrak said last month that it had made numerous reforms.