Amtrak Derailment Raises Questions About Rail Safety Tech

The technology known as passive train control and emergency response strategies have been topics of discussion following the deadly Amtrak derailment in Washington state Dec. 18.

by Denver Pratt, The Bellingham Herald / December 21, 2017

(TNS) — The only two railway lines running through Whatcom County are equipped with technology, known as positive train control, designed to slow or stop a train even if the conductor fails to act, a BNSF Railway official said Wednesday.

It was not immediately clear how long ago the technology had been installed on the lines in Whatcom County, but the technology is available on both rail lines leading all the way to Seattle, said Gus Melonas, a BNSF spokesman. Melonas said BNSF is declining to get into specifics or breakdowns at this time.

On Monday, an Amtrak train derailed south of Tacoma, sending railcars off an overpass onto southbound Interstate 5. The derailment killed at least three passengers, injured more than 100 and has closed I-5.

The train was on its first-ever run along a faster route from Seattle to Portland that was expected to save 10 minutes, according to officials with the National Transportation Safety Board. The train was traveling at 80 mph in a 30-mph zone when it ran off the rails on a curve coming around a bridge near Mounts Road in DuPont, officials said.

The NTSB is now looking into whether the engineer was distracted by another employee-in-training that was in the cab when the 14-car train derailed.

It’s not immediately clear whether any Whatcom County residents or Western Washington University students were onboard.

Local law enforcement and emergency personnel have conducted exercises, and are planning a full-scale simulation of a train derailment in Whatcom County for 2019, said John Gargett, deputy director for the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office Division of Emergency Management.

“It’s the closest you can get without actually having something happen,” Gargett said about the full-scale drill. “We have great support. We have a good team in Whatcom County.”

Talks were held this week to plan for the 2019 train derailment exercise, which takes a full year to plan, Gargett said. Gargett said they’re not sure whether they will simulate a passenger, freight or oil train derailment or what part of the county the simulation will be conducted. BNSF will also take part in the exercise, and an evaluation will be done afterward, he said.

“The main reason we do them is because there’s different risks and hazards that we face,” Gargett said. “We want to take a programmatic approach to it. … Our job is to plan for all these things.”

This year’s exercise was simulated at the airport and next year’s will be a Mount Baker eruption, he said. They also plan active shooter exercises with school districts.

“If I had to give an answer to if Whatcom County is prepared, I would say we’re as prepared as any community and perhaps better than most communities as we’re an ideal size,” Gargett said. “There’s always room for improvement, but we do exercises so we can hone our skills.”

Positive train control, the technology used on the tracks running through Whatcom County, was not in use on the 15-mile stretch of track where Monday’s Amtrak train derailed, officials said. The track sensors and other components of the technology have been installed but the technology wasn’t set to be completed until next spring. The faster route was pressed into service, though, officials said.

Railroads are required to install the technology by the end of next year after Congress acted in 2008 following a collision of a Metrolink passenger train and a freight train operated by Union Pacific in California that killed 25 people and injured 135.

The Associated Press, the Tacoma News Tribune and the Spokesman-Review contributed to this report.

©2017 The Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Wash.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.