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What We Know: Amtrak Safety Culture In Question After Crash

By Conrad Wilson (OPB), Molly Solomon (OPB) and Lauren Dake (OPB)
Vancouver, Washington Dec. 21, 2017 9:10 p.m.

Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson said this week that the crash that killed three people south of Tacoma was a “wake-up call.”


The railroad company has committed to covering the entire costs of the derailment, from the medical expenses for the injured to the costs associated with restoring passenger rail service to road repair. And it’s time, Anderson said, to improve the safety culture at his company.

Anderson has been working as co-CEO of Amtrak since the summer and will take over the job fully Dec. 31.

The inaugural trip of Amtrak 501 was much anticipated: the first on a new $180 million rail bypass designed to shave off about 10 minutes on the trip between Seattle and Portland.

There are still a lot of unanswered questions about why the train hit a 30 mph curve at nearly 80 mph. But here’s a snapshot at what we do know:

Delay In Safety Measures

Amtrak Cascades doesn't run the technology system known as positive train control, which would have automatically slowed the train before it hit the curve, on that set of track.

Related: How Life-Saving PTC Technology Works — And Why It Didn't Stop Amtrak Crash

Congress has extended the timeline for when it requires PTC to be on trains to 2018.

Geoff Patrick, a spokesman for Sound Transit, said it’s on schedule to complete activation of the technology in the second quarter of 2018. Sound Transit owns the track where Amtrak 501 derailed. They didn’t wait for the safety measures before they ran the train, Patrick said, because if they did, “there would be no Amtrak passenger service.”

Oregon transportation officials also said they are on pace to have the safety technology, PTC, operational by the end 2018.

Amtrak Safety Culture

The most recent crash is the latest in a string of derailments in recent years by Amtrak trains, including a similar incident two years ago in Philadelphia. That train was going more than 100 mph in a 50 mph zone.

Eight people died and more than 150 were injured — about a third of them seriously.


In the Philadelphia derailment, Amtrak agreed to a $265 million settlement for lawsuits filed by victims and their families. The engineer was charged criminally with involuntary manslaughter by the state, but a judge dismissed the charges saying the evidence showed it was "more likely an accident than criminal negligence."


Training Tacoma Rail — which ran freight trains on the bypass before Sound Transit took over and upgraded the pass — provided training to Amtrak engineers prior to the derailment, according to the Tacoma News Tribune. The training took place in February, but it wasn't clear if the Amtrak crew involved in the crash was in the training. The goal was to gain familiarity with the route.

While Tacoma Rail ran freight on the rail, the speed limit was 10 mph on the curve. With track upgrades, the speed limit along some sections of the track increased for commuter passengers to 79 mph. The speed limit for the curve where the crash happened was 30 mph.

The Investigation

The National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation could take up to a year or longer before a final report is issued. The scope of the investigation will be vast and detailed.

Keith Millhouse was the board chair of Metrolink, the main commuter rail system in Southern California, when the NTSB investigated a 2008 train crash that killed 25 people. He said the NTSB will work to recreate the last moments of the Washington train's movement and will consider everything from mechanical issues, to something on the track, to speeding. They will also look at what could have affected the engineer's ability to operate the train, like medical problems, personal issues or distractions.

Related: Witness, Survivor Describe Scene Of Chaos As Train Derailed

Behind Schedule

Amtrak 501 was supposed to leave Seattle’s King Station at 6 a.m. Monday, Dec. 18, but some passengers reported hearing that the train was delayed due to mechanical issues. Amtrak confirmed the train departed at 6:10 a.m., but declined to say why. Amtrak spokesman Marc Margiari said he couldn’t confirm whether an announcement even took place.

Emma Shafer was a passenger on board. She said Amtrak made an announcement shortly before leaving.

“They said we were still on the tracks due to mechanical difficulties, I think it was,” Shafer told OPB. “They were like, ‘We’re just going to get that sorted out here for you folks and we’ll be leaving.’”

By the time Amtrak 501 left Tacoma it was 7:17 a.m., more than 30 minutes behind schedule. At 7:33 a.m., Amtrak 501 derailed, spilling onto Interstate 5, killing three people, injuring dozens more and shutting a key section of the West Coast’s main north-south highway.

Latest Details

Late Wednesday, Interstate 5 reopened. The derailment caused a closure along a critical portion of the highway for three days.

All three victims have been identified: Jim Hamre, Zach Willhoite and Benjamin Gran.

Officials say more than two dozen people remain hospitalized.