Did ‘culture’ play a factor in deadly train derailment?

The Amtrak train took a 30 mph curve at 80 mph and plunged off an overpass, sending rail cars plummeting onto a busy highway south of Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

The former chair of a regional rail system in Southern California who dealt with the aftermath of a deadly head-on collision says there’s likely a lot more to the derailment that happened Monday in Pierce County than just speed.

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Keith Millhouse, the former chair of the Metrolink board in Los Angeles, California, says a safety system could have prevented the head-on Chatsworth crash between a commuter train and freight train in 2008 that killed 25 people. It’s probable that a safety system, known as positive train control, also would have prevented the Amtrak derailment that killed three and injured dozens more on Monday.

Positive train control was originally scheduled to be in place across the country by 2015. That deadline has been pushed back. Millhouse says commuter and freight agencies have put pressure on elected officials to keep it from happening.

“Basically, they consider it too expensive.”

But there are many factors that need to be taken into account, Millhouse says. That includes the “culture” around rail service and how seriously the agencies responsible take it.

“While this particular accident is fairly straightforward … there are many things that have to be looked at beyond speed. Culture is one of them,” he said.

An illustration of that, he says, is the location of “Train Safety” on WSDOT’s rail information website. The categories are not in alphabetical order and the safety information page is the 11th category down.

Millhouse says the track, which became part of a new route between Seattle and Portland, doesn’t look like it was designed for high-speed service.

Photos of the train derailment in Pierce County

He also questions if there was pressure to get it open early — a Seattle Times investigation found that is a possibility — and whether or not the train’s late departure was a factor in what happened.

Listen to the entire interview here.