The reopening of the I-5 southbound lanes eases the traffic crunch that has enveloped the region since Monday's deadly Amtrak train crash.
Update, 10 p.m. Wednesday:
All southbound lanes have reopened.
The two left lanes of southbound Interstate 5 through DuPont reopened just before 5 p.m. Wednesday, finally easing the traffic crunch that has enveloped the region since Monday’s deadly train crash closed the highway.
The right lane was to remain closed overnight but should be open for Thursday morning’s commute, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) said.
Dirt and debris remained in both the right lane and the right shoulder, which is why they were to stay closed overnight.
The southbound exit at Mounts Road also reopened Wednesday evening, and the on-ramp from Mounts Road was to reopen Thursday morning, WSDOT said.
WSDOT crews still need to replace guard rails and do some roadwork on the right shoulder.
But the concrete roadway itself appears to have held up well, despite the 270,000-pound Amtrak locomotive that landed on it.
Crews found no significant damage, said John Wynands, WSDOT’s administrator for the Olympic Region.
Crews have worked around the clock since Monday morning, first to aid crash victims and then to stabilize the site and remove the 13 derailed train cars. The locomotive, by far the heaviest and most difficult car to remove, was trucked out Wednesday morning.
State officials had been pleading with drivers since the crash to avoid the area, as the few possible detours could not contain the volume of cars displaced from the state’s busiest highway. Some listened, but others soldiered on.
Shortly before the lanes reopened, there was a four-mile backup on I-5 approaching a designated detour through Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
The opening came hours after workers hauled away the locomotive that had skidded onto the roadway during the crash. It was the last part of the train to be removed from the freeway.
The locomotive was placed on a special 19-axle trailer rig and hauled north for 3 miles on I-5’s southbound lanes and then another 4 or 5 miles up DuPont-Steilacoom Road to a secure site at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, joining other rail cars that were removed Tuesday. Federal transportation investigators will analyze the train there.
While investigators work to determine what caused the crash, Amtrak is taking responsibility for financial ramifications resulting from it.
Gov. Jay Inslee announced Wednesday evening that Amtrak had committed to paying for the costs of the derailment, including medical costs of the injured, clean up and repair of the freeway and costs to restore rail service.
“This is a significant commitment,” Inslee said, noting his appreciation.
Also Wednesday, the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office identified Benjamin Gran, 40, of Auburn, as the third person killed in the crash. Zack Willhoite and Jim Hamre, two close friends and longtime rail advocates, were also killed.
For work crews, removing the locomotive was the biggest challenge in getting the highway back open.
“We’ve been planning for that locomotive pretty much since it started,” Hall said. “Just the sheer weight of it, it took a great amount of time — fortunately, our contractors have been doing a fantastic job under very extreme weather conditions.”
The special trailer, called a lowboy because it rides low to the ground, had to be reinforced with equipment brought in from Oregon, said Doug Adamson, a WSDOT spokesman.
The trailer was moved with two tractors because of the weight and couldn’t drive at much more than 10 miles per hour. An extra tractor, pushing the load from behind, was weighted down with concrete blocks to provide ballast.
“This is what is considered a superload,” Hall said. “It’s quite an ordeal.”
With the locomotive gone Wednesday morning, state crews and contractors worked throughout the day, cleaning wreckage and debris off the road, making repairs to the rail trestle and dismantling the cranes that helped remove the train cars.
Tractor trailers continued to come and go throughout the day, hauling away the massive machines — cranes, front loaders and other heavy equipment — that had been used to haul away the train.
Several trees that had been felled or uprooted by the crash had to be removed as they rested precariously above the roadway.
Through much of the day, officials could not say when the highway would reopen, because they could not see the pavement beneath the dislodged dirt and detritus.
“Remarkably, the roadway as we can see it now, it looks like it held up fairly well,” Washington State Patrol Capt. Dan Hall said at a morning news conference.
But the debris proved frustratingly difficult to clear.
“The debris from the collision is extensive,” WSDOT spokeswoman Claudia Bingham Baker said in the early afternoon. “We keep discovering more.”
Workers made minor repairs to the roadway throughout the day, including replacing about 200 feet of steel guardrail.
A preliminary investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) showed the train’s engineer never applied the emergency brakes before the train — which was traveling 50 mph faster than the posted 30 mph speed limit — derailed Monday morning as it went around a curve in the tracks. Three passengers were killed and about 70 were injured.
NTSB officials plan to soon interview the train’s engineer and crew members, who were all hospitalized. Preliminary information from the data-event recorder in the train’s lead locomotive showed an emergency brake was automatically activated after the train left the tracks.
NTSB board member Bella Dinh-Zarr said at a Tuesday news conference that an engineer and a new conductor who “was familiarizing himself with the territory” were in the locomotive cab when the crash occurred. Another conductor was in a train car interacting with passengers.
She also said the train’s inward- and outward-facing cameras, heavily damaged in the crash, would be analyzed at the agency’s lab in Washington, D.C. The crew members’ cellphone records also would be scrutinized.
She said it is too early to determine why the train was going so fast, but among the things investigated would be whether distraction played a role.
The derailment occurred on a rebuilt, $181 million passenger corridor known as the Point Defiance bypass route that was designed to make the trip between Seattle and Portland more reliable. Monday’s trip was the inaugural regular-service trip on the route.
State transportation workers had long ago envisioned the corridor would be refurbished by 2019, according to state records. But to fully collect federal stimulus money, it needed to be finished by mid-2017.
That’s why the route opened on Monday. Had officials waited a few more months, the service would have included a critical safety feature that automatically slows trains traveling too fast.
The accident raises questions about the decision to start the new passenger line before the safety technology, known as positive train control, was scheduled to be operational next spring.
Inslee said that Amtrak committed to seek to implement safety system statewide as soon as possible, and by the end of 2018 at the latest.
“There are still many unanswered questions about why this incident occurred,” Inslee said. “I have confidence the NTSB’s investigation will provide those answers.”