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Passenger locomotives run for first time on tracks since deadly Nisqually crash

People work at the curve where an Amtrak train derailed onto I-5 in December 2017, in DuPont, Wash. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

It’s been just over three years since the Amtrak derailment that spilled passenger cars all over I-5 and ended with the deaths of three people. For the first time since that crash in December 2017, passenger train cars are running on those very same tracks.

Most of us will never forget those images. Passenger cars on the freeway. Passenger cars dangling off the tracks, hanging perilously over the freeway. It was the inaugural trip of the Point Defiance Bypass, tracks that went through Lakewood and DuPont, shaving about 10 minutes off the trip out of Tacoma.

The engineer at the controls failed to slow the train to make the left hand curve near Mounts Road where the tracks cross the freeway. The train hit the curve at more than double the posted speed. The Positive Train Control system that would have slowed the train had not been activated.

Amtrak locomotives began running on those tracks for the first time since that deadly day this weekend. From 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, those locomotives have been on the tracks, as the process of re-certifying the corridor begins.

“The first phase of that is what we call system integration testing, where we are testing all of the railroad signals, all the markings and signage along the bypass,” said Scott Thompson, Sound Transit spokesman.

Sound Transit has been running trucks on the rails for about a week, and now it’s time to introduce the Amtrak locomotives.

“We will be running Amtrak locomotives from Tacoma all the way down to Nisqually, and the trains will start out at slower speeds and eventually ramp up to the top speed of 79 miles per hour,” Thompson said.

Sound Transit owns this section of track, and Thompson said the agency has hired local police officers to monitor every railroad crossing.

“We’ve already got variable message boards up, notifying people that this testing is coming,” he said.  “The weekend of testing we are actually going to have local police at all the at-grade crossings to make sure that nobody is driving through there.”

And, yes, the locomotives have been making that curve where the crash took place, but Thompson said a lot of safety improvements have been made over the last three years.

“Positive Train Control is now active and operational through the bypass so if the operator doesn’t slow down where he is supposed to, the computer system is going to slow the train down automatically,” he said.

After this locomotive testing, there will be engineer training for those who will be at the controls when service returns. Thompson said Sound Transit and Amtrak plan to return passenger service on this bypass sometime later this year, likely late summer or early fall.

Ridership on the passenger line between Seattle and Portland is still down 89% because of the pandemic.

Check out more of Chris’ Chokepoints.

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