Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff has removed his agency’s top safety officer as a result of the fatal Amtrak Cascades passenger-train derailment on Sound Transit-owned tracks in DuPont, Pierce County, in December 2017.
Transit executives are also considering whether and how to impose the same rigorous training on Amtrak that Sound Transit and King County Metro demand for light-rail service, Rogoff said in an interview Wednesday.
Whenever a light-rail extension opens the rail operators, trainees and vehicles undergo weeks of practice trips before a passenger ever boards the train.
The Amtrak engineer involved in the 2017 derailment had operated a locomotive there three times as part of his training, along with seven to 10 observational trips with Amtrak colleagues. Amtrak apologized afterward and promised to beef up its training.
“Sound Transit staff wrongly believed that WSDOT, not Sound Transit, was responsible for overseeing all activities related to Amtrak training and qualifications,” Rogoff said in a Wednesday memo to the transit board.
The transit agency also is forming a separate safety division that Rogoff says will bring a laser focus.
Salah Al-Tamimi, Sound Transit chief executive safety and quality officer, no longer holds that post and his future has yet to be determined, Rogoff said. Al-Tamimi is currently on medical leave, but might be able to return in a lower-ranked position in another department, Rogoff said. Al-Tamimi, 57, spent five years as a division chief at a current salary of $203,824.
To replace him, Moises Gutierrez was promoted to interim director of the new safety division. As deputy construction-management director, Gutierrez recently devised new stairway options to cope with escalator failures, including an engineering change inside the 2021 U District Station to add a central stairway to reach the lower platform.
“He is a very good leader of people,” Rogoff said.
The shake-up follows this year’s report by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) that placed primary blame for the crash on Sound Transit for failing to require safety improvements where the derailment occurred.
The agency also named Amtrak, train owner Washington State Department of Transportation, and the Federal Railroad Administration as being responsible for the crash.
The division of roles among several agencies contributed to poor oversight, NTSB found.
“I’m just amazed at the amount of failure that goes along here,” NTSB Vice President Bruce Landsberg said in a May hearing.
Amtrak engineer Steven Brown missed at least one warning sign about a speed restriction and zoomed through a curve at nearly 80 mph in a 30 mph zone, dumping railcars down onto I-5. The derailment occurred on the first-ever passenger trip through the $181 million corridor.
Three train enthusiasts aboard died, while 57 other passengers and eight people traveling on I-5 were injured.
Sound Transit, after the NTSB finding, hired L & H Consulting Group, which interviewed 17 employees for a report the agency released Wednesday. Rogoff will speak about the changes Thursday during an open meeting of the transit board’s Rider Experience and Operations Committee.
Rogoff said Sound Transit, whose own analysis identified the curve as a hazard, was too willing to take other agencies’ word that trains would operate safely.
“In the final analysis, it is the responsibility of the chief safety officer to apply the safety regulation that exists,” Rogoff said. “It is a fundamental element of safety regimens that unanswered questions should not go unanswered.”
Al-Tamimi couldn’t be immediately reached late Wednesday.
The 58-page consultant report said that in November 2017 Al-Tamimi attested in a memo that the new route “is considered safe and secure for transition to operational use and service.” The report faults the staff for failing to understand that under federal regulations, Sound Transit as the host railroad is responsible for assuring train operators are properly certified.
On the other hand, Rogoff said, no other U.S. track host has intervened to supervise Amtrak’s training.
Al-Tamimi explained to an NTSB investigator: “Just from my end, I just want people to remember how complicated this thing is. You’ve got too many parties and we try to work together. It’s — because some of the questions would have been clear, black and white, if you’re talking about the Link or something like that where you just have one partner to deal with.”
In hindsight, Rogoff said, Sound Transit could have banned Amtrak Cascades operation until Amtrak installed positive train control (PTC), which triggers alarms and automatically slows an over-speed train. The NTSB has called for adoption of positive train control nationwide since 1967.
When the Pierce County line was being designed, in the early 2010s, PTC was supposed to be working on Amtrak by late 2015 — a deadline that Congress let slide nationally at several railroads’ request.
“The expectations were from all of our parties that PTC was going to be operating on the Point Defiance Bypass,” Robert Taaffe, Sound Transit, senior construction and system safety manager, told NTSB. Without PTC, the transit agency relied on signs, low speeds and locomotive engineers to mitigate the risk.
Amtrak is already a year late in returning its trains to the 14-mile corridor between Tacoma and Nisqually, which CEO Richard Anderson hoped to accomplish by late 2018. The route is meant to make trains faster and more reliable than the older route through Tacoma Narrows, where Amtrak continues to run on tracks also used by BNSF Railway trains.
State transportation Secretary Roger Millar decided not to take action against any WSDOT rail personnel regarding the crash.
Rogoff won’t predict when the corridor will reopen, based on several unknowns.
Amtrak is still looking for temporary replacement railcars to use through the corridor, said Janet Matkin, spokeswoman for WSDOT rail division. The state is following an NTSB recommendation that the type of lightweight Talgo 6 railcars involved in the crash be removed from service “as soon as possible,” Matkin said.
Talgo disputes its railcars played a role in the derailment.
Amtrak itself has yet to announce a restart date, until it requalifies its crews during a three-month regimen, Matkin said. Amtrak Cascades trains have operated since Dec. 28, 2018, in other parts of the state under newly installed positive train control, she said.
Sound Transit has yet to figure out, under Gutierrez’s leadership, exactly what sort of training regimen it might require of Amtrak.
A jury in September ordered Amtrak to pay $17 million to three people injured in the derailment, as other cases proceed.