TACOMA — When he first realized his Amtrak locomotive would roll at 80 mph into a sharp left curve, engineer Steven Brown kept faith he’d make it to the other side.
“I thought I was going to spill some coffee,” he recalled. “I thought we were going to go around, it was going to be uncomfortable, but I didn’t imagine in a million years we were going to leave the track. And it all happened really fast.”
As the train flew off the rails, Brown recalls darkness and a long cracking sound. He lost consciousness until someone tapped him on the back and said, “We’ve got to get you out of here.”
The locomotive had hurtled off the tracks at a trestle over I-5 near DuPont, Pierce County, landing sideways on the freeway and then bouncing upright, where paramedics found Brown slumped over the console.
The crash on Dec. 18, 2017, killed three rail enthusiasts and injured 65 other people — Washington state’s worst passenger train disaster since 1910, when 96 people perished in a trackside avalanche near Stevens Pass.
Three years later, the rail industry is poised to move on.
Amtrak is preparing crews this spring to operate in the Lakewood-Nisqually corridor, where passenger service has been suspended since the crash. Sound Transit, which owns the track, hired a new safety director who’ll decide when to give Amtrak the green light.
President Joe Biden has proposed $80 billion to improve and extend Amtrak routes.
“The rumble of rails, the freedom of looking out your train window, should once again be known to be as all-American as the open road,” federal Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg declared April 30, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Amtrak.
Steven Brown’s life, though, remains sidetracked.
He’s fighting to regain his engineer’s license, but says the odds don’t look favorable. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) suspended it because he far exceeded the 30 mph speed limit entering the curve.
“I was hoping to be on this planet to do some good,” the 59-year-old Brown said across a picnic table at Tacoma’s Wright Park this spring, in his first news interview since the crash.
“I had it made. You’re never quite sure in life if you’re doing the right thing. I was satisfied with where I got in life. I was really, truly happy,” he said. Brown hoped to work into his 60s and then retire to a job on tourist trains.
“In an unbelievable instant, it’s all gone,” he said.
Fired by Amtrak and often blamed by the public for the crash, Brown won some vindication in March when a Pierce County judge ruled Amtrak is financially responsible for his losses, because it operated the Amtrak Cascades 501 train in unsafe conditions. Brown sued for lost earnings, on grounds that “the loss of my engineer’s certificate was caused by the negligence of Amtrak.”
Based on the Federal Employers’ Liability Act of 1906 — written to protect the incomes of railroad workers during an epidemic of crippling injuries — Amtrak needed to prove errors by Brown were the sole cause of the wreck. He’s now eligible to seek his $105,000 annual salary, plus retirement benefits, at a trial scheduled Oct. 11.
The crash broke nearly all Brown’s ribs, shattered his jaw and cheekbone, compressed his vertebrae and damaged his right elbow, which required partial replacement. His back feels sturdy enough to operate a locomotive but he’d have difficulty climbing into a train cab, he said.
Driving a car down I-5, under the gray trestle near DuPont where the train crashed, makes him nervous.
Brown said he has struggled with insomnia, panic attacks and sorrow for the people injured or killed in the derailment. “I relive this trip in my waking hours. All day. I think it’s just so all encompassing,” he said.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was “amazed by the amount of failure” by the four agencies responsible for the corridor: Sound Transit; Amtrak; the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), which funds Cascades service and railcars; and the FRA, which regulates rail operations.
In particular, NTSB criticized the agencies for inadequate crew training and allowing trips through the hazardous curve before Amtrak installed satellite-based positive train control (PTC), which would automatically slow a speeding locomotive heading toward danger.
Amtrak argued in court that Brown violated federal law by exceeding the speed limit by more than 10 mph.
“He was terminated for violating safety rules, not due to his injuries or any alleged negligence of Amtrak,” railway lawyers wrote.
Before the trip, Brown took one practice run southbound at the controls of a locomotive, two northbound runs, and seven to 10 observational rides in groups, from various parts of a train.
An Amtrak supervisor called the route “not very challenging,” while a union representative told NTSB it was “a relatively simple piece of railroad,” except for a downslope approaching the curve.
Brown had become an engineer in 2013, following nine years as a conductor, and was described by a foreman as “very competent and conscientious,” the NTSB report said. Brown still calls it his dream job. As a child in Illinois, he played with model trains and bicycled to rail yards where crews showed local boys around the equipment.
He took up railway photography, and his images landed on magazine covers. Brown ditched his early career path in railroad logistics so he could work aboard trains.
He felt lucky to be atop the engineers’ shift rotation the night before Amtrak’s first trip for Cascades 501 on the newly opened tracks — a direct path from Lakewood through DuPont that’s faster than the waterfront route past the Tacoma Narrows.
Shortly before Brown boarded the train leaving Seattle, a foreman reminded him by phone to “remember the curve, slow down early, take your time, be careful.” Brown, who earlier scored 100% on a written qualification exam for the new route, told a conductor the trip would be “a learning experience.”
The train left Seattle at 6:09 a.m. on Monday, Dec. 18, 2017. A friend, Dale Skyllingstad, boarded at Tukwila Station, and got a wave from Brown. They’d met years ago at Salmon Beach in Tacoma, where both photographed trains emerging from a tunnel.
As the train rolled south, in-cab video recordings showed Brown alert. He glanced at gauges, and chatted with a conductor, who was familiarizing himself with the route, about work schedules. (The FRA’s post-incident report cited “non-operational conversations” as a probable factor in the crash.)
Investigators say he called out “DuPont.” Nine seconds later, he passed a 30 mph warning sign but didn’t reduce his approximately 80 mph cruising speed, just over two miles before the curve. Freight trains need two miles to slow down; passenger trains don’t.
Brown intended to count mileage markers, and apply brakes 1 mile before the curve.
But he missed a white milepost sign, obscured by glare from the train headlights, 1.9 miles from the curve, the NTSB said.
Then he missed another white position marker between mileposts. That sign was also “washed out by the reflection of the headlight” on a silver signal box, NTSB found. He passed a green signal, which indicated that tracks ahead were clear.
He was behind the controls of a one-month old Siemens Charger locomotive, which Brown studied in training class but had never operated.
The control panel emitted three shrill pairs of beeps only a half-mile before the curve.
Brown first thought the beeps came from an “alerter,” which makes engineers show they’re attentive by frequently manipulating the controls. He braked slightly, NTSB said.
Then he realized the beeps were actually an overspeed alarm, warning he had exceeded the regional speed limit of 79 mph. “The overspeed alarm had nothing to do with the curve,” Brown emphasized.
By then, the train was going 82 mph and had traveled a mile beyond where Brown thought he was.
Brown recalls moving his lever to apply moderate air brakes, two settings short of emergency mode.
He glimpsed the final 30 mph sign and another signal just a few seconds before entering the curve. Brown cursed, and three seconds later uttered, “We’re dead,” an NTSB chronology said. Brown recalls the profanity, but still thought for a couple of seconds the train would stay upright. He said he doesn’t remember saying “we’re dead.”
NTSB blamed Sound Transit, as the track owner, for failing to require positive train control, despite the fact that the agency’s own safety plan called the curve an unacceptable risk and named PTC as the remedy.
NTSB said the DuPont crash, and earlier fatal passenger train derailments in the Bronx and Philadelphia, would have been prevented with PTC, which combines satellite tracking and software to slow or stop trains that are approaching hazards or going too fast.
Amtrak has equipped its Western Washington trains with PTC since then. It’s now 100% installed nationwide on both freight and passenger lines.
Sound Transit’s new safety director, David H. Wright, said he’s imposed a stringent PTC policy in which trains will slow to 30 mph whenever the system falters. PTC works 98.5% reliably on Sounder commuter trains, he said.
Additional signs will be installed along the Lakewood-Nisqually route, he said, to mark an intermediate 50 mph zone, a gradual reduction between cruising speed and the curve.
According to new agreements this year with Sound Transit, Amtrak engineers must complete at least six practice round trips and conductors three round trips to qualify to operate trains there, including a series of 10-hour days running empty trains on a real schedule, “to mimic the exact operating conditions for the service.”
They’ll also undergo simulator training that includes fog, darkness and reaction to the curve, documents show.
Crew-qualification trips are scheduled June 1 to July 25, WSDOT announced Thursday. Sound Transit’s Wright wouldn’t predict yet when passenger service will begin.
Brown thinks PTC will enhance safety, but his advice remains to “engineer the curve out” by rebuilding the DuPont tracks and trestle. “As long as it’s there, it’s a hazard. It’s just dangerous to have it there. It’s a sharp, sharp curve at the bottom of a steep, steep hill.”
Amtrak President Stephen Gardner said new PTC, and a geolocation app to assist conductors, will ensure safety. “You don’t need to necessarily reduce curvature — though reducing curvature, of course, helps achieve higher speeds,” he said in an interview last week.
As for future work, Brown expected a decision months ago about his engineer’s license and still hopes to operate trains. Failing that, photography is a possible career option.
To relax, he travels and photographs trains, including a drive with friends along a railroad in the highlands of Chile last year and a trip through Texas this month. He says he’s made short Amtrak rides in Milwaukee and Philadelphia, but avoids the Cascades 501 route.
He remains friends with Skyllingstad, who was ejected onto I-5 and suffered head and pelvis injuries. Skyllingstad won a $7.75 million jury award from Amtrak.
They texted each other from hospitals after the crash. Skyllingstad didn’t blame Brown, who for years talked about how lucky he was to become a train engineer.
“I knew right off the bat, this was definitely not characteristic of his work ethic and safety,” Skyllingstad said.
Following the Tacoma interview this spring, Brown and Skyllingstad went someplace Brown had avoided for 3½ years — the waterfront town of Steilacoom, where BNSF Railway freight trains roll through.
“We walked to the park and watched a few trains go by, and he was good with that,” Skyllingstad said. “It’s little steps here and there.”