The National Transportation Safety Board is looking at the possibility that some passengers may have been ejected from an Amtrak train that derailed Saturday as it made its way from Chicago to Seattle.
The Empire Builder train was traveling at 75 mph to 78 mph – below the speed limit of 79 mph – when it jumped the tracks in a remote section of north-central Montana, NTSB Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg said in a Monday briefing. With one full day at the crash scene, investigators have yet to determine what might have led to the fatal crash.
“We’re not ruling anything out,” said Landsberg, adding that maintenance is going to be a “big concern” in the investigation. “We don’t know at this point exactly what happened, whether it was a track issue, whether it was a mechanical issue with the train. All of those things are open.”
Three people were killed and dozens of others were injured when the train derailed at about 4 p.m. local time near Joplin, nearly 200 miles north of Helena, Mont.
The NTSB has assumed the lead role in determining how eight of the 10 cars left the tracks. The Federal Railroad Administration also has a team of experts assisting in the investigation. The Empire Builder train was en route from Chicago to Seattle with 141 passengers and 17 crew members when it veered off the tracks.
Local authorities identified the victims Monday as Marjorie Varnadoe, 72, and Donald Varnadoe, 74, of Georgia; and Zach Schneider, 29, of Illinois.
Donald Varnadoe was a real estate agent from St. Simons Island, Ga., and his wife, Marjorie, was a well-known schoolteacher, according to a family friend. Both were active in their community, serving or volunteering on local government boards and other civic groups.
The couple called their cross-country Amtrak trip their “trip of a lifetime,” said Robert Kozlowski, who worked with Donald Varnadoe. He said they were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary.
Donald was so excited that he watched YouTube videos of trains for months, fascinated by one of the nation’s oldest and most storied forms of travel, Kozlowski said. When the couple arrived in Washington, D.C., on Friday during one stop, they texted and called Kozlowski and others back at the real estate office.
“Every day you could count on him to be working,” Kozlowski said. “He worked every day. Him and Margie attended everything. They were always giving to people. Just always giving, giving, loving their family.”
Schneider of Fairview Heights, Ill., was traveling with his wife on vacation to Portland, Ore., when the train derailed, according to a GoFundMe page created to cover funeral expenses.
“Zach Schneider is one [of] the sweetest, smartest, and most unique people I know,” wrote Caleb Morris, the organizer for the fundraiser. “I have always respected his ability to think differently. Zach always used this to push for a better world where everyone was included.”
Although the cause of the crash so far remains unknown, NTSB investigators on-site since Sunday have started to piece together what happened. They are using video footage from the train and black-box data while analyzing damage to rail cars and injuries to survivors and those killed, Landsberg said.
He said investigators will interview crew members on the Amtrak train and on a freight train that passed through the area 80 minutes earlier.
“We have experts that are studying the camera footage frame by frame to make sure that we see exactly what the engineer saw, and maybe didn’t see,” Landsberg said.
Landsberg said investigators have not yet determined whether passengers were ejected but are analyzing at that possibility. The NTSB in the past has issued recommendations to railroads and the Federal Railroad Administration to prioritize steps that would prevent ejections during crashes, which often are the source of fatalities.
Rail safety experts say there could be numerous reasons for the derailment, including human error, track and equipment failure, which is more common on older equipment such as the bi-level Superliner fleet operating in the route, the oldest in Amtrak’s rolling stock.
Degradation in the vehicle and the track – neither of which by itself may be sufficient to cause a derailment – also could have led to the derailment, experts say.
Allan Zarembski, director of the University of Delaware’s Railway Engineering and Safety Program, said it is less likely in this case that human error was a factor because that stretch of track and the train are probably fully equipped with the automatic braking system known as positive train control (PTC), designed to take human error out of operating a train.
The system automatically applies the brakes if a train is exceeding speed limits and can prevent a train from going down the wrong track if a switch is left in the wrong position. Amtrak or the railroad owner, BNSF Railway, have not said whether PTC was properly working at the time of the crash.
“Things like over-speed or something like that should not have happened,” said Zarembski. “I don’t think this was a case where the switch was improperly set because, among other things, the lead locomotive did not derail and positive train control would have picked up an improperly set switch.”
The crash happened near a switch – where the railroad goes from a single track to a double track – which some experts speculate could have played a role. Matthew Jones, a spokesman for BNSF Railway, said Sunday in a news conference that the track where the train derailed was inspected Thursday.
Experts say it is not uncommon that so many of the train cars derailed, due to energy from the train in motion.
“There’s so much energy in that train that it’s not at all unusual that once a car derails, a whole bunch of cars derail behind it,” Zarembski said.
Liberty County Sheriff Nick Erickson estimated that as many as 30 people were injured. By Monday, five remained hospitalized and in stable condition in Great Falls, Mont., local officials said.
The Empire Builder route connects Chicago and Seattle and is a popular route for vacationers because of the scenery it traverses, including views of the Mississippi River, the skylines of Minneapolis and St. Paul, the Gassman Coulee Trestle and Glacier National Park. It is regarded as a lifeline for many in the Upper Great Plains who live in rural areas not easily accessible by plane.
Service disruptions continue at stations between the Pacific Northwest and the Midwest. The NTSB said it will allow BNSF Railway to resume freight and passenger operations as soon as investigators have documented everything they need from the crash site.
The NTSB, which also will make recommendations on how to prevent similar crashes, is expected to be on-site for about a week and release a preliminary report within 30 days.
Amtrak’s incident response team has been on-site since Sunday to support those affected and is working to get passengers to their homes or destinations, the passenger rail said. The company said it will retrieve and return personal belongings of passengers left on the train when it is allowed to return to the site.
Amtrak chief executive Bill Flynn and President Stephen Gardner, and the company’s safety and operations leaders, were in Montana to support the investigation.