Passengers may have been ejected in deadly Amtrak derailment in US

The derailed Amtrak train outside of Joplin, Montana, on Sept 25, 2021.
The derailed Amtrak train outside of Joplin, Montana, on Sept 25, 2021.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - Some passengers aboard the deadly Amtrak train that derailed on Saturday (Sept 25) in Montana may have been ejected as the train violently jumped the tracks, US investigators said on Monday.

Three people died on Saturday as the westbound Empire Builder, which was headed to Seattle and Portland from Chicago, came off the tracks, tipping some rail cars on their sides, according to photos of the scene.

"One issue that we will be looking at very carefully is the possibility that some passengers may have been ejected from the train in the course of the crash," National Transportation Safety Board Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg said at a briefing.

The issue has arisen in previous crashes and the safety board has issued recommendations designed to limit the chances that passengers will be flung outside cars during crashes, he said.

The NTSB found in a 2015 Amtrak crash in Philadelphia, which killed eight people, that train passenger car windows didn't remain intact, "resulting in ejections, injuries and fatalities," the agency said.

The Federal Railroad Administration has been conducting research on strengthening windows, the Transportation Department said in a 2017 annual report to Congress.

The Montana crash occurred just before a split in the rail lines, Landsberg said.

The proximity to the junction between two tracks led retired safety expert Grady Cothen, who was deputy associate administrator for safety standards at the Federal Railroad Administration, to say earlier on Monday that investigators will look at whether the derailment was linked to an issue with the switch.

Landsberg didn't address whether the switch might have been involved except to say the NTSB hasn't ruled out any cause.

In addition to the fatalities, five people were hospitalised after the accident on Saturday afternoon, Montana Governor Greg Gianforte said in an earlier briefing.

The train was near the town of Chester in the northern prairie lands near Canada. Dozens more of the 141 passengers and 17 crew suffered minor injuries.

Berkshire Hathaway Inc's BNSF Railway freight railroad owns the line where the accident occurred. BNSF had installed a safety system known as positive train control on that section of track that automatically ensures trains won't go too fast or collide with other trains, the company said on its website.

The train was travelling at a maximum speed of 78 miles (126km) per hour in an area with a speed limit of 79 miles per hour, Landsberg said.

The NTSB is looking at the condition of the track and whether there had been maintenance in the area recently, Landsberg said. A freight train had passed along the same section of track 80 minutes before the accident, he said.

Investigators have downloaded forward-facing video and data from the Amtrak train and from freight trains that operated in that area on the same day, he said.