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NTSB Investigates Why Amtrak Train Derailed, Killing At Least 3 People


At the end of a train derailment in Washington state, one Amtrak locomotive was still on the track. The passenger cars that had been attached to it were strewn across an overpass, a nearby slope and Interstate 5 below. Looking over the wreckage, a train operator called into a dispatcher.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We were coming around the corner to take the bridge over I-5 there right north of Nisqually and we went on the ground.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Is everybody OK?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I'm still figuring that out. We've got cars everywhere and down onto the highway.

INSKEEP: Everybody was not OK. In those train cars, three people were dead, many people injured. It was once Deborah Hersman's job to oversee the investigations of wrecks like this. She is the former chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, which examines each accident. Welcome back to the program.

DEBORAH HERSMAN: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So we just heard the operator say we were coming around the corner. I guess that's the first relevant fact here, right? The train was on a curve.

HERSMAN: That's right. And this has traditionally been an area of concern when we look at over-speed events or conditions where the train is traveling too fast for the track conditions.

INSKEEP: And that's one thing we know for sure at this point, right? It's said that the train was traveling 80 miles per hour in a 30-mile-an-hour zone. It was supposed to slow down for that curve.

HERSMAN: That's right. The NTSB last night released information that the rear locomotive's recorder stated that the train was traveling at 80 miles per hour, 50 miles per hour faster than the speed on the curve.

INSKEEP: The rear locomotive 'cause there's one on the front, one on the back and passenger cars in the middle, right?

HERSMAN: That's right.

INSKEEP: So what do you make of that? Why would the train be traveling more than twice the legal speed?

HERSMAN: So this is the question that the investigators are really going to need to get to. There can be a lot of reasons why the train might be traveling too fast for conditions. Certainly they'll want to rule out any mechanical failure or any issue with the equipment. But very often, what they'll find is there are human factors here. And just like all of us when we drive our cars on the roadway, coming around a curve, you've got to slow down. And so understanding what was going on in the locomotive cab is going to be key.

INSKEEP: I guess if you're moving 80 miles an hour, can it be deadly to be distracted even for a few seconds?

HERSMAN: Absolutely. Distraction is something that we saw on the Metrolink crash that killed 25 in Chatsworth, Calif. in 2008. But we've also seen fatigue like in Spuyten Duyvil with Metro-North. And so whether the engineer is incapacitated, distracted, fatigued, these can all be very critical events and that's why positive train control is such an important backup to the human being.

INSKEEP: OK, let's talk about that. Let's emphasize also we don't know that distraction or fatigue were factors here. We just know they have been factors in past crashes, as you've said. Now, positive train control, wasn't there supposed to be such a system in operation on this very line?

HERSMAN: Yes. So in 2008, Congress required through the Rail Safety Improvement Act that positive train control be put on all passenger lines and high hazardous materials routes by 2015. Congress extended that deadline. And so that requirement is still out there and many lines do not have positive train control.

INSKEEP: What is it exactly?

HERSMAN: So positive train control is a GPS-based system that allows a train to know exactly where it is at any point in time. Think about our phones and how we know how to get where we're going and what speed we're traveling. And so this technology can prevent collisions, train-to-train collisions, and it can also prevent over-speed events like when a train is going too fast for conditions. It knows what the track speed requirements are and it can slow or stop a train if an engineer doesn't input the appropriate actions.

INSKEEP: OK, so it's not exactly a self-driving train. But essentially, if the engineer were to make a mistake, the train would start driving itself.

HERSMAN: Yeah, the train would really stop itself is really the key here with positive train control because it's that redundant backup to the human being to prevent something catastrophic from happening.

INSKEEP: You said this happened in 2008, that this was passed by Congress in 2008. Why is it not fully operational and we're almost in 2018?

HERSMAN: So I'd say this is a great disappointment when it comes to safety on the railroads. This technology has been around since the 1970s. It's nothing new. The NTSB, in fact, put it on their first most-wanted list back in 1990. So this is old technology. But I would say the biggest stumbling block is the dollars that are required to upgrade technology on the railroads. That's really World War II era technology that needs to be upgraded.

INSKEEP: Is it really that expensive to upgrade it with this particular system?

HERSMAN: You know, it is expensive. But I'd say at the end of the day, every railroad that's had a fatal event, they put PTC on after the crash. We want to get them to put the PTC systems on before they have these fatal events.

INSKEEP: Deborah Hersman, always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you very much.

HERSMAN: Thank you. Have a safe day, Steve.

INSKEEP: Thank you very much. She is CEO of the National Safety Council and former head of the National Transportation Safety Board. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.