More than 50 Talgo railcars that have served the Amtrak Cascades line since 1998 will be replaced “as soon as possible,” the state announced Wednesday, a day after the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said the lightweight vehicles didn’t adequately shield passengers in the 2017 fatal Amtrak crash near DuPont.
The decision follows blistering comments by the NTSB that pointed fingers at track owner Sound Transit, Amtrak, the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and the Federal Railroad Administration for a series of training and safety-management failures that led to the derailment of a train traveling 80 mph into as curve supposed to be taken at 30 mph.
Three people were killed and 57 injured in the Dec. 18, 2017, crash that spilled railcars onto Interstate 5.
Talgo objected to any claim that its equipment is unsafe, and an executive said the safety board disregarded technical information the company provided.
“Talgo has been servicing the Cascades Corridor for over 20 years with an impeccable safety record thanks to the nature of its technology,” and that extreme forces in the DuPont crash exceeded what any passenger railcars could withstand, said Nora Friend, Talgo vice president for business development and public affairs. “Talgo’s expert analysis differs from the speculation of the NTSB staff and we stand behind Talgo’s crashworthiness and safety record worldwide,” she said.
NTSB staff said the Talgo Series 6 trains, made of lightweight aluminum, uncoupled and ruptured. Two of the passengers killed were ejected from a railcar that broke loose, while a third was struck by a flying wheel assembly, investigators said.
Washington owns two 13-car Talgo Series 6 trainsets, and Amtrak two others, that would require a combined $100 million to replace, said Janet Matkin state rail spokeswoman. Another set damaged in the crash may also be replaced. Oregon owns two more Talgo trainsets that are different and not criticized by the NTSB, Matkin said.
Talgo railcars are used almost exclusively on the Amtrak Cascades line, where their distinctive tilting ability allows trains to maintain more passenger comfort on curves. That was a crucial reason WSDOT acquired the railcars in the late 1990s.
“They’re smoother, they’re more intimate. They can get through at higher speeds,” said Harvey Bowen, president of the rail riders organization All Aboard Washington.
The company wasn’t notified Wednesday of WSDOT’s announcement, but hopes for talks with the state, to continue maintaining Cascades railcars, Friend said.
The safety board’s 53 findings include nine regarding either crashworthiness or the FRA’s decision to approve the Talgo Series 6 trainsets for use on the route. The NTSB recommended replacing those railcars.
The wrecked train “did not provide adequate occupant protection after its articulated connections separated, resulting in complex, uncontrolled movements and secondary collisions with the surrounding environment which led to damage so severe to the railcar body structure, that it caused passenger ejections,” one finding said.
Unlike on typical trains, whose wheel and axle frames are horizontal under the car, the Talgo railcars in the DuPont crash had wheels at the bottom of large vertical posts that the NTSB said broke loose on impact. Nylon straps that secured wheelposts to the railcars were past their useful life, a finding said.
State Transportation Secretary Roger Millar has yet to set a deadline for replacing the railcars. Train schedules are expected to continue as normal at least through Memorial Day weekend, said Janet Matkin, rail spokeswoman for WSDOT. Cascades trains carried 800,000 people last year between British Columbia, Washington and Oregon.
“Amtrak is working with WSDOT to determine how to address equipment needs moving forward and how we’ll provide Amtrak Cascades service without the Talgo Series 6 trains,” Matkin said.
The 21-year-old passenger cars, which Talgo maintains using local workers, can last another 10 years, Friend said.
The NTSB doesn’t have the power to regulate railroad operators, so the state is free to continue using them, she said.
Matkin said the state was planning to procure new trains around 2025 and will expedite that schedule somehow.
Among other lingering questions is how sidelining the Talgos would affect ride quality. The Spanish-designed trains were chosen to satisfy the state’s need for a tilting train, which can comfortably travel through curves at higher speed than conventional trains. A less-nimble railcar, perhaps used stock that WSDOT leases, might mean slower trips.
All Aboard Washington “supports WSDOT’s decision to continue operating with the current equipment until other options can be evaluated and implemented,” the group said in a statement posted to its website. While praising the state’s safety goals, All Aboard Washington said it doesn’t have an opinion yet about whether that means replacing the Talgo 6, or some other mitigation.
Bowen said two Talgo Series 8 trains are unused and for sale in Wisconsin. Or the state could run standard trains from Seattle to Vancouver, B.C., while dedicating Talgos to the curvier, busier section between Seattle and Portland. Modifications to Talgo 6 may be possible, said Bowen.
“If any mechanical contrivance of man is subject to that level of energy, it’s going to be coming apart, in a way that can’t be modeled,” he said.
The crash occurred on the inaugural Amtrak trip in a new, 14-mile corridor called the Point Defiance Bypass that Sound Transit rebuilt for $181 million. The curve was left in place because, even with federal stimulus money for rail projects, the state chose not to spent an additional $200 million to straighten a trestle and tracks that cross I-5.
WSDOT’s decision to replace the Talgo cars complicates the return of Amtrak to the new bypass in 2019, for direct passenger trips from Tacoma through Lakewood and DuPont. Since the crash, the Cascades reverted to a slower path around Point Defiance next to Puget Sound. Amtrak and other parties say satellite-based positive train control will be operational when Cascades uses the bypass.
Decisions about equipment need to be settled before moving onto decisions about the bypass route, Matkin said.