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Lawmakers grill state, Amtrak officials over train derailment

Three people were killed Dec. 20, 2017, in DuPont, Wash. when an Amtrak train derailed along a new route. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

State transportation and Amtrak officials were in the hot seat Wednesday as state lawmakers got their first chance to grill them about the deadly Amtrak train derailment in December.

A senseless politicization of the Amtrak tragedy

This was billed as a work session in the House Transportation Committee about the derailment of Amtrak 501, but committee Chair Judy Clibborn made clear it was just a first step.

“Today is the day that we are going to have the opportunity to ask questions. It is not a day where anybody should expect to have all the answers.”

The biggest question: Why did the high-speed rail service launch before the safety system positive train control was operational?

State Transportation Secretary Roger Millar basically said because it didn’t have to be.

“Positive train control is not a pre-requisite for safe operation. It’s certainly a value-added safety overlay. It will be a requirement — a federal requirement — on December 31, 2018. It’s been around as a concept for better than 40 years. Originally, there was a requirement that it be in place nationwide by December of 2015, but Congress extended that to 2018 and even to 2020 for some issues. So we are all working on a December 2018 deadline.”

Millar also addressed reports that WSDOT may have risked the safety on the service by rushing to get the lineup and running so it could meet the deadline for federal reimbursement money.

“Safety comes before meeting any deadline, and the deadlines that were in place were for constructing the project. There was no deadline for initiating service.”

Senior Amtrak Government Affairs Manager Rob Eaton told lawmakers he was limited to what he could say until the NTSB investigation is complete but stressed Amtrak would step up.

“As Amtrak’s CEO Richard Anderson has already pledged, once the findings are complete Amtrak will do the right thing.”

He says the fact that there have been two derailments on Amtrak’s Cascade service in six months shows Amtrak needs to make safety improvements.

“The two incidents that occurred last year, train 506 in Steilacoom [this] past July and then train 501 in DuPont this December leaves no doubt that Amtrak needs to take serious steps to ensure the safety of our Amtrak Cascades operation”

‘The world went completely topsy turvy’

So Eaton told the committee Amtrak is taking a series of safety steps even before the NTSB investigation is complete.

Those steps were detailed in a letter on WSDOT’s website about a meeting between the two agencies that was also given to lawmakers on the committee. The letter also details Amtrak’s plan to have PTC in use on the Cascade line by the end of the year.

Republican Representative Morgan Irwin wanted answers on the training for the crew of Amtrak 501 on this new route.

“It’s my understanding that the training for the conductors on this route consisted of two trips on the route, at night where they didn’t touch the controls. Is that standard practice? Was that actually the training that occurred for these conductors? And do you feel that that’s anywhere near enough?

But there wasn’t much in the way of answers

Eaton said Amtrak couldn’t say much.

“Actually I don’t have any direct knowledge of the actual training for them. The fact that it’s over this specific route that’s being investigated by the NTSB so I’m going to have to leave it them because they’re investigating the training on that.”

There was no new information on the conductor or trainee in the lead locomotive, whether the conductor may have been distracted, or why the train was going nearly 50 mph over the speed limit when it headed into the sharp curve.

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