Amtrak passenger train on inaugural run derails near DuPont, killing three, on December 18, 2017.

  • By Fred Poyner IV
  • Posted 11/05/2019
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20901

On December 18, 2017, Amtrak Cascades passenger train 501 derails near DuPont, Washington, on its inaugural run from Seattle to Portland on a newly built Point Defiance Bypass line. The crash involves the front locomotive, 10 passenger cars, a power railcar, a baggage railcar, and a rear locomotive. It takes place during the Monday morning rush hour on a curve in the track near Interstate 5. Three fatalities and numerous injuries result, with vehicles on the highway also involved. An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determines that the train's excessive speed -- nearly 80 mph on a curve with a speed limit of 30 mph -- is the primary cause of the derailment. 

Calamity on Debut Trip

The Point Defiance Bypass line was constructed from 2010 and 2017 at a cost of $181 million. It shortened the distance from Tacoma to points south by following Interstate 5, rather than using the old Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) mainline that runs along the Puget Sound shoreline between Tacoma and Nisqually. The Point Defiance Bypass project was jointly managed by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and the Oregon Department of Transportation, with Amtrak the designated train operator.

On its inaugural run out of Seattle on December 18, 2017, Train No. 51 carried 77 passengers and five Amtrak crew members, with one additional train technician from the Talgo company on board.

At 7:33 a.m., the southbound train derailed at a curve while approaching a railroad bridge across southbound Interstate 5 near Mounts Road. All 12 of the train's cars derailed along with the lead Siemens Charger locomotive. Six passenger cars and the lead locomotive fell onto Interstate 5, damaging eight vehicles including two semi-trucks. The devastation covered a broad area: one passenger carriage dangled from the bridge, while others were strewn across the freeway and the wooded area next to the elevated track. Southbound traffic on Interstate 5, which had been at the peak morning commute time, came to a standstill. Spread over the crash site were 350 gallons of spilled diesel fuel from the lead locomotive's fuel tanks.

A total of 100 people from the train and the highway were taken to hospitals; later estimates place the injured total at 65. Among these were the train's driver, who sustained a head injury. Several motorists were struck by the fallen train cars and suffered injuries, though there were no fatalities among them. However, three train passengers were killed, all of them riding in Car No. 7: Zack Willhoite (1982-2017), an internet technology specialist for Pierce Transit; James Hamre (1956-2017), a board member of the National Association of Railroad Passengers; and fellow train enthusiast Benjamin Gran (1977-2017).

Peter LaCody, the National Association of Railroad Passengers club president, called Hamre, "a dedicated passenger rail advocate doing what he loved to do. Riding trains, promoting travel and making friends" ("Amtrak Washington train crash ... ").

One passenger said that just prior to the crash the train "rocked and creaked" as it approached the bend at high speed, before missing the turn and derailing into Interstate 5 ("Amtrak Washington train crash ..."). Another reported how passengers were "catapulted" into the seat in front of them during the derailment (Ostrower). Among those who were first on the scene of the accident were Daniel Konzelman, who was driving to work. Konzelman, an Eagle Scout, worked his way through the train cars on the freeway, assisting injured passengers until first responders arrived.

One of the passing motorists, Danae Orlob, was among the first on the scene to witness the extent of damage: "We came around the corner and it had to have just happened ... there were no police there yet. There was one link of the train off to one side and the other on the other side of the freeway. There were crushed cars underneath. There was an insane amount of fire trucks and ambulances heading towards us" (Ostrower).

Calls for help were immediate, both from the train and from those who had witnessed the crash from the highway. Among the first to go out was an urgent plea from the train conductor's radio: "Emergency! We are on the ground!" ("Amtrak Washington train crash ..."). The exchange between the conductor, Garrick Freeman (b. 1970) and the Amtrak dispatcher revealed the extent of the disaster:

Dispatcher: "Hey guys, what happened?"

AMTRAK 501: "Uh, we were coming around the corner to take the bridge over I-5 there, right north into Nisqually and we went on the ground."

Dispatcher: "... Is everybody OK?"

AMTRAK 501: "I'm still figuring that out. We got cars everywhere and down onto the highway" (Ostrower).

Data recorder details gathered as part of the NTSB investigation revealed the train had been travelling 78 mph at the time of the crash, greatly exceeding the posted rail speed limit at the curve of 30 mph. The route had signs posted 2 miles before the lowered speed zone (from 79 mph on straight sections of track) and just before the zone. According to WSDOT spokesman Barbara LaBoe, "Engineers are trained to slow trains according to posted speeds" (Baker). In the final NTSB report for Accident No. RRD18MR001, the cause of the crash was found to be excessive speed, with the train driving in a straight line thereby missing the turn. The damage from the crash was estimated at more than $25.8 million.

Too Fast on a Hazardous Curve

One recommendation made in a 2006 version of the plan for the Point Defiance Bypass line was to include funding for a straighter alignment in the track at the site of a curve and overpass of Intestate 5 south of Tacoma. The estimated cost of $412 million was not approved, and the project went ahead with the curve route unchanged. While this was not the definitive cause of the derailment on December 18, 2017, it raised questions about the safety of the bypass.

Another aspect that came to light following the crash was the extent Positive Train Control (PTC) systems (or lack of these) were a factor. The system was designed to prevent certain conditions such as excessive speeds. While the line retrofit project included such controls in some sections of the track along its 14.5-mile corridor, they were not operating in the crash area when it occurred, and that "the equipment was still being tested" (Baker). The NTSB report determined that the installation of the PTC was "not complete" at the time of the crash ("Amtrak derailment").

A question about adequate training of Amtrak staff was also brought to light in the NTSB report. The engineer told the qualifying conductor early in the trip, at about 6:50 a.m., that "this trip was a learning experience for him, including what throttle position to use to maintain speed, and that he had only operated one roundtrip over the new territory" (Amtrak Passenger, 2-3).

In the "Conclusions" section of the NTSB final report, dated May 21, 2019, the findings reflected failings at several levels:

"The probable cause of the Amtrak 501 derailment was Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority's failure to provide an effective mitigation for the hazardous curve without positive train control in place, which allowed the Amtrak engineer to enter the 30-mph curve at too high of a speed due to his inadequate training on the territory and inadequate training on the newer equipment. Contributing to the accident was the Washington State Department of Transportation's decision to start revenue service without being assured that safety certification and verification had been completed to the level determined in the preliminary hazard assessment. Contributing to the severity of the accident was the Federal Railroad Administration's decision to permit railcars that did not meet regulatory strength requirements to be used in revenue passenger service, resulting in (1) the loss of survivable space and (2) the failed articulated railcar-to-railcar connections that enabled secondary collisions with the surrounding environment causing severe damage to railcar-body structures which then failed to provide occupant protection resulting in passenger ejections, injuries, and fatalities" (Amtrak Passenger, 124).

The accident continued to impact the lives of those involved. On January 3, 2018, conductor Freeman filed a lawsuit against Amtrak, along with passenger Pennie Cottrell, in Pierce County Superior Court, for pain and suffering from injuries received as a result of the crash (Cottrell had been a passenger in Car No. 7, which had dangled precariously over Interstate 5).

As of 2019, Amtrak Cascades trains continued to offer roundtrip passenger service between 18 cities along the Interstate 5 corridor, from Vancouver, British Columbia to the route's southern terminus in Eugene, Oregon.


Sources:

Mike Baker, "Amtrak Train That Derailed Onto I-5 was Reportedly Going 80 in a 30-mph Zone, Officials Say," The Seattle Times, December 18, 2017, accessed October 7, 2019 (https://www.seattletimes.com); Amtrak Passenger Train 501 Derailment, DuPont,  Washington, December 18, 2017, NTSB.gov website, accessed October 7, 2019 (https://www.ntsb.gov/investigations/AccidentReports/Reports/RAR1901.pdf); Jon Ostrower, Joe Sterling and Ralph Ellis, "At Least 3 Dead in Amtrak Derailment in Washington State, Official Says," CNN website, accessed October 7, 2019 (https://www.cnn.com/2017/12/18/us/amtrak-derailment-washington/index.html); "Amtrak Derailment," NTSB.gov website, accessed October 7, 2019 (https://www.ntsb.gov/investigations/Pages/RRD18MR001.aspx); "Amtrak Washington Train Crash: Investigators Focus on Speed," BBC News website, accessed October 7, 2019 (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-42408624); Evan Bush, "'Holy Cow, So the Train is Actually on the Road?'," The Seattle Times, December 24, 2017, accessed October 6, 2019 (https://www.seattletimes.com); Mike Lindblom, "Injured Conductor, Passenger Sue over Fatal Amtrak Derailment onto I-5 South of Tacoma," Ibid., January 3, 2018, accessed October 9, 2019 (https://www.seattletimes.com).


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