Amtrak 501 Disaster: Piecing It Together

The NTSB has started releasing preliminary information about the circumstances surrounding the Amtrak 501 crash.  Early information usually comes from easily verifiable sources like video and audio recording.

This KIRO 7 article does a good job of explaining NTSB findings in an investigation that is now expected to take 12-24 months:

  • Inward-facing video with audio captured the crew’s actions and their conversations. A forward-facing video with audio captured conditions in front of the locomotive as well as external sounds.
  • The crew was not observed to use any personal electronic devices during the timeframe reviewed.
  • About six seconds prior to the derailment, the engineer made a comment regarding an over speed condition.
  • The engineer’s actions were consistent with the application of the locomotive’s brakes just before the recording ended. It did not appear the engineer placed the brake handle in emergency-braking mode.
  • The recording ended as the locomotive was tilting and the crew was bracing for impact.
  • The final recorded speed of the locomotive was 78 mph.

The full human performance and human factors reports will take into account many more issues, but operator distraction is an obvious checkbox in transit disasters.

The engineer’s comment regarding the train’s speed and last-second braking may be consistent with questions raised about the Amtrak crew’s potentially inadequate training and lack of positive train control, which could have automatically slowed the train down from the 80-mile per hour pace prior to crashing.  This King 5 article discussing training also has a good video model of the crash.

Mass transit cases are inherently political at the local and often national level.  This KIRO 7 article explains how a WSDOT employee promised the Lakewood City Council–11 months before the crash–that the trains would have positive train control “before we start service.”  Of course, WSDOT has backtracked on that promise, releasing a statement that reads in part:

“David Smelser’s comment about PTC being operational at the time service started on the Point Defiance Bypass was based on the best information he had at the time. If the litmus test is that PTC needs to be fully activated to operate passenger rail service, then there would not be any passenger rail service statewide and in many areas of the country.”

Amtrak’s CEO reported that the company expects to have positive train control activated in the northwest before the deadline imposed by the federal government–the end of 2018.

This is litigation-speak.  They are saying that the standard of care for safe train operation is only the bare minimum of what the federal government mandates across the country.  That’s a lousy argument.  The initial deadline for positive train control was 2015.  It was extended after Amtrak and other common carriers threatened to shut down service.  As this article reports, “Critics [of the extension] have complained the agreement will result in a “blanket five-year” extension for railroads to install technology that has been touted as a life-saver that can prevent deadly train accidents. ”

We should be entitled to safety standards that meet our community’s expectations.




Amtrak 501 Disaster: “shame on them” and lessons from the Ride the Ducks transit disaster


My heart goes out to these families and first responders.  The horror depicted in the picture above pales in comparison to the inside of those trains, and the path forward after an event like today’s Amtrak 501 disaster involving multiple fatalities and dozens of injuries.

News is starting to break about potential causes.  Amtrak President and Co-CEO Richard Anderson said Positive Train Control (“PTC”) was not activated on the tracks at the time of the derailment.  PTC automatically slows the train if it senses the train is going too fast or may crash.  Railroad investigator John Hiatt told CNN, “If there was no Positive Train Control in effect there, then shame on them.”

Responsibility for this tragedy is likely to be complicated.  The train that derailed this morning was owned by both Washington State and Oregon Departments of Transportation.  Amtrak is responsible for service and daily operations. The tracks are owned by Sound Transit.  Because this was the “inaugural” trip, independent engineering and transit firms are also in the mix.

Karen Koehler and I represent 39–a substantial majority–of the victims of the Ride the Ducks crash, believed to be the worst mass transit disaster in Seattle history.   It involves many of the same issues likely to be investigated in the Amtrak 501 disaster: product design and failure, maintenance or operator failure, and fatal public transportation flaws.  With numerous parties and distinct legal theories, this is as complex as litigation gets.  These  cases require dozens of depositions, ten or more forensic experts, lab and engineering testing on an enormous scale, and hundreds of thousands of pages in documentary evidence.

In the Amtrak 501 disaster,  the NTSB will most likely release a preliminary statement concerning potential causes in the coming days or weeks.  The full NTSB investigation can take months or years.  The NTSB will ultimately hold a hearing regarding the information gathered and its conclusions as to the causes and responsibility for the disaster.  NTSB conclusions are not directly admissible in court, however, so the victims of a mass transit disaster still must investigate on their own.

A lot can be learned through comprehensive public disclosure requests and extensive fact-finding investigations in litigation.  First responders will likely conduct a review of the crash and their response to a mass casualty incident (“MCI”).  Although there are several definitions of MCI, it typically refers to an incident where the scope of the injuries and circumstances on scene force first responders to abandon the ordinary standard of care that would apply to one-to-one (or similar ratio) medical response.  An incident will often be declared an MCI during the initial response on scene, which signals to medics and other authorities that they need to triage patients and coordinate the scene.  From that point forward, first responders employ a chain of command with assigned groups such as Rescue Group and Operations.

In an MCI, documentation and immediate identification of victims can be impossible.  We took 19 depositions of first responders in the Ride the Ducks disaster to piece together the carnage of the scene and swift MCI response by the Seattle Fire Department.  After 30 more depositions, the truth reveals itself.

That is, after all, the main goal victims have–what happened to me and my family, and why?  I hope the victims of the Amtrak 501 disaster get the answers they deserve.

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