The Amtrak train that plunged off an overpass south of Seattle, killing at least three people, was hurtling 50 mph over the speed limit when it jumped the track, federal investigators say.
Bella Dinh-Zarr, a National Transportation Safety Board member, said late Monday that the data recorder in the rear locomotive showed the train was going 80 mph in a 30 mph zone when it derailed along a curve, spilling some of its cars onto an interstate highway below.
Dinh-Zarr said it is not yet known what caused the train to run off the rails and too early to say why it was going so fast. She said investigators will talk to the engineer and other crew members. In previous wrecks, investigators looked at whether the engineer was distracted or disabled.
The engineer, whose name was not released, was bleeding from the head after the wreck, and both eyes were swollen shut, according to dispatch audio.
The train, with 85 passengers and crew members, was making the inaugural run along a fast new bypass route that was created by refurbishing freight tracks alongside Interstate 5. The 15-mile, $180.7 million project was aimed at speeding up service by bypassing a route with a number of curves, single-track tunnels and freight traffic.
Positive train control — technology that can automatically slow or stop a speeding train — wasn’t in use on this stretch of track, according to Amtrak President Richard Anderson.
Regulators have pressing railroads for years to install such technology, but the deadline has been extended repeatedly at the industry’s request and is now the end of 2018.
The 7:34 a.m. accident left mangled train cars up on top of each other, with one hanging precariously over the freeway. The screech and clang of metal were followed by silence, then screams, as the injured cried out to rescuers and motorists pulled over and rushed to help.
More than 70 people were injured, 10 of them seriously.
Train passenger Emma Shafer found herself at a 45-degree angle, staring at the seats in front of her that had come loose and swung around.
“It felt oddly silent after the actual crashing,” she said. “Then there was people screaming because their leg was messed up. … I don’t know if I actually heard the sirens, but they were there. A guy was like, ‘Hey, I’m Robert. We’ll get you out of here.’”
One of the dead was identified as Zack Willhoite, a customer service employee at a local transit agency and a railroad buff excited to be on the first passenger run of the new route. He was a member of All Aboard Washington, an organization of rail advocates.
The group’s executive director, Lloyd Flem, said it was a given that Willhoite would be on the trip. “It’s pretty devastating. We’re having a tough time,” Flem said.
In 2015, an Amtrak train traveling at twice the 50 mph speed limit ran off the rails along a sharp curve in Philadelphia, killing eight people. Investigators concluded that the engineer was distracted by reports over the radio of another train getting hit by a rock.
In September, a judge threw out charges of involuntary manslaughter and reckless endangerment against the engineer, saying the wreck did not appear to rise to a crime. Prosecutors are trying to get the case reinstated.
In the Washington state crash, speed signs were posted 2 miles (3 kilometers) before the speed zone changed, according to Kimberly Reason of Sound Transit, the Seattle-area transit agency that owns the tracks.
Eric Corp, a councilman for the small town of DuPont near the derailment site, said he rode the train with about 30 or so dignitaries and others on a special trip Friday before the service opened to the public Monday.
“Once we were coming up on that curve, the train slowed down considerably,” he said.
After the Philadelphia wreck, Amtrak agreed to pay $265 million to settle claims filed by victims and their families. It has also installed positive train control on all of its track between Boston and Washington.
The NTSB’s Dinh-Zarr said it is too soon to say whether positive train control would have prevented Monday’s tragedy.