Amtrak train derailed on new, faster route that drew concern
SEATTLE, Wash. — A community along the new rail line where an Amtrak train derailed in a deadly crash had tried to stop the project on grounds higher-speed passenger trains would endanger pedestrians and motorists.
The city of Lakewood, several miles north of the crash site, went to court in 2013 to stop the Point Defiance Bypass project, which redirected passenger trains from a curvy route along Puget Sound that competes with freight traffic and squeezes through single-track tunnels where only one train can go through at a time.
Opponents said the route, which shortened the trip between Portland, Oregon, and Seattle would expose car and pedestrian traffic to faster trains at more than a half-dozen street-level crossings in Lakewood. City officials asserted the state transportation department’s environmental review of the new route was inadequate and failed to consider traffic, neighborhood and other impacts.
In March 2014, a judge dismissed the lawsuit and the $181 million track upgrade moved forward. Until now, the route was used by freight trains.
Early Monday, during the first run of the new passenger service, 13 of the 14 cars went off the tracks at an overpass, some tumbling onto Interstate 5.
Even people who tried to stop the new route on safety grounds said a derailment wasn’t a concern.
“These are new, upgraded tracks — that’s what is so surprising about this,” said John Niles with the Coalition for Effective Transportation Alternatives, which joined local elected officials in opposing the project. “They weren’t worried about a train derailing.”
At least three people on board were killed, local authorities said, contradicting a U.S. official briefed on the investigation who earlier told The Associated Press that at least six were dead. No additional briefings were provided by late afternoon, and the official said he had no new information to explain the discrepancy in the numbers.
The U.S. official was not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.
The track is owned by Sound Transit, the public transit system for the Seattle area, which oversaw the upgrades and did extensive testing prior to Monday’s public opening, agency spokeswoman Kimberly Reason said.
While it will take investigators months to determine the precise cause, speed may have been a factor.
Moments before the derailment the train was going 81.1 mph (130.5 kph), according to transitdocs.com, which maps train speeds using data from Amtrak’s train tracker app.
The maximum speed drops from 79 mph (127 kph) to 30 mph (48 kph) for passenger trains just before the tracks curve to cross Interstate 5, according to a track chart prepared by the Washington State Department of Transportation.
Another Sound Transit spokeswoman, Rachelle Cunningham, confirmed the maximum allowable speed was 30 mph (48 kph) at the derailment point but could not say where that lower limit began.