Federal agencies Rail Transportation

Lack of Positive Train Control system a factor in fatal rail incident, NTSB concludes

Photo: Washington State Patrol

Washington — Fully operational Positive Train Control technology “would have intervened” to stop a fatal Amtrak passenger train derailment in which crew members were inadequately trained and tested on various aspects of a new route, the National Transportation Safety Board has concluded after its investigation into the December 2017 incident in DuPont, WA.

In the preliminary final report issued May 21, NTSB states that the train engineer had minimal experience on the route and was traveling at more than twice the speed limit when the train entered a hazardous curve during its first run on a bypass between Seattle and Portland, OR. According to a corresponding press release, the engineer told investigators he didn’t notice a speed reduction warning sign as the train approached the curve. Consequently, the lead locomotive and four railcars derailed, tumbling onto Interstate 5 and striking eight vehicles.

Three train passengers were killed while 65 others were injured, including eight highway commuters.

In the release, NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said the agency has investigated three fatal overspeed passenger train derailments since 2013, and each could have been prevented by PTC systems. The federal deadline for full implementation of PTC systems is Dec. 31, 2020.

To help prevent similar incidents, NTSB issued several recommendations.

To the Federal Railroad Administration:

  • Study the efficacy of how signs used in other modes of transportation may be effectively used in the railroad industry.
  • Prohibit the operation of passenger trains on new, refurbished or updated territories unless PTC is implemented.

To Amtrak:

  • Ensure operating crew members demonstrate their proficiency on the physical characteristics of a territory by using all resources available to them, including in-cab instruments, signage, signals and landmarks; under daylight and nighttime conditions; and during observation rides, throttle time and written examinations.
  • Revise the classroom and road training program to ensure operating crews fully understand all locomotive operating characteristics, alarms and the appropriate response to abnormal conditions.
  • Require all engineers to undergo simulator training before operating new or unfamiliar equipment (at a minimum, experience and respond properly to all alarms) and, when possible, undergo simulator training before operating in revenue service in a new territory and experience normal and abnormal conditions in that territory.
  • Implement a formal, systematic approach to developing training and qualification programs to identify the most effective strategies for preparing crew members to safely operate new equipment on new territories.
  • Conduct training that specifies and reinforces how each crew member, including those who haven’t received their certifications or qualifications, may be used as a resource to assist in establishing and maintaining safe train operations.

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