This is appalling and unacceptable. It’s also a wake-up call for Washingtonians as the state expands its historic rail-building spree, including a Puget Sound rail and bus transit system costing more than $100 billion, and studies of a $42 billion ultrafast train between Canada and Oregon.
Travelers and taxpayers need more assurance that safety is paramount at their transportation agencies and all current and future rail systems. This requires not just fixes and reviews of how to improve the bureaucracy and protocols, but accountability, holding individuals professionally responsible for bad decisions that allowed this accident to happen.
The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the probable cause of the DuPont accident was Sound Transit’s failure to effectively mitigate the hazard of a dangerous curve on track it owns, allowing an Amtrak engineer with inadequate training to enter the curve too fast. It said the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) contributed to the accident by starting the train service without assuring that necessary safety steps were taken.
Contributing to the severity of the accident was the Federal Railroad Administration, which decided earlier to allow the Amtrak Cascades line to use rail cars that didn’t meet normal strength requirements. Then there’s the rail industry’s inexcusably slow implementation of automated braking technology — with federal approval.
Put another way, layers and layers of transportation governance — including mind-numbing rail-approval procedures at the local, state and federal level, cross-checks and signoffs by multiple agencies to ensure standards and safety protocols are followed — failed to prevent this train from hurtling down a poorly marked track toward a dangerous curve across Interstate 5 with an unprepared crew.
On the inaugural run of the new passenger route bypassing Point Defiance, the train flew into the curve, rated for 30 mph, at 80 mph.
Engineers had little training on this new route and were distracted by alarms. Warning signage approaching the turn was inadequate and overlooked. An automatic braking system was installed but not yet operational. Several passengers were ejected when the aluminum trains destructed in the crash.
The engineer made a mistake and had responsibility to slow down. But NTSB investigators “clearly call out that Sound Transit, WSDOT and Amtrak set the engineer up to fail,” said Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier, a Sound Transit board member.
“We can’t treat this as an isolated incident,” he said. “We’ve got to say ‘how do the failures that emerged here (happen), where can they be in the rest of the organization, how can we learn and apply it broadly?’ “
Sound Transit Chief Executive Peter Rogoff did the right thing by acknowledging mistakes were made and pursuing an outside review, which will inform any disciplinary action and safety improvements. State Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-University Place, proposed additional railroad safety oversight, which should prompt legislators to discuss changes at the state level.
Our hearts go out to the three people killed, the dozens injured, their families and others traumatized by the DuPont accident. That includes public servants working to provide more, better and safer transportation systems, none of whom intentionally contributed to this accident.
At the same time, the traveling public and taxpayers funding these systems demand better coordination, better organizational execution and accountability when mistakes are made.