Federal Officials Are In Washington State To Probe Amtrak Derailment
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And let's turn now to the state of Washington where federal officials are investigating how an Amtrak passenger train plunged off an overpass yesterday. The images from this derailment are dramatic - train cars dangling over a busy freeway, some strewn down a hillside, others simply turned on their sides. At least three people died in this derailment. The National Transportation Safety Board says a data recorder shows this train was traveling at 80 miles an hour in a 30-mile-an-hour zone. And we're going to talk now with Will James from member station KNKX in Tacoma, Wash. Hi there, Will.
WILL JAMES, BYLINE: Hey, David.
GREENE: So you actually made it to the area near where this happened and were speaking to some of the people involved.
JAMES: That's right. I started my day at city hall in a place called DuPont, and that's a few minutes' drive from the scene of the accident. And it's where rescuers were bringing some of the passengers who didn't need to go to the hospital immediately. Still, they were wandering around stunned, some with blood on their faces or minor injuries. And that's where I met two passengers, Patricia Freeman (ph) and Scott Claggett (ph), and they were a little shaken up, but they were able to describe what it felt like to be on that train.
PATRICIA FREEMAN: I felt the train kind of jolt, and I thought, oh, that's not good.
SCOTT CLAGGETT: My car completely twisted, and glass, people were all coming towards me flying in the air.
FREEMAN: And then we slammed into a tree. I didn't know what we slammed into. It was just this horrible impact. I kind of got flung across the aisle and onto the floor. I was trying to grab the bottoms of the tables as I went by, but I was just going back and forth across that train car like a pinball in a pinball machine.
CLAGGETT: All I knew was that I just wanted it to stop. I wanted the car to stop 'cause I'm thinking to myself I'm still alive, I'm still alive.
JAMES: And those are two of the 80 passengers who were on this train.
GREENE: God, I can't even imagine some of the things they're describing. Can you tell me - we're talking about 80 miles an hour in an area that was designed for 30 miles an hour. Is this just a matter of a train going way too fast, or is there more going on here?
JAMES: So this investigation has just started, so there's no certainty about a cause yet, but based on what the National Transportation Board is saying, that's an early point in the investigation. But it's going to focus on early - at least early in the investigation why this train was going 80 miles an hour as it took this 30-mile-an-hour curve.
GREENE: But there could be other factors you're saying.
JAMES: Yeah. In addition to speed, they'll probably be looking at the condition of the equipment on the train, the condition of the tracks. They may speak with the five on-duty Amtrak employees who were aboard the train as well as a technician from a train manufacturer who was on board. And that may help them determine whether this was human error, track conditions, an equipment failure or some combination of the above.
GREENE: You talk about track conditions. Wasn't this rail line or at least this project brand new? So was - were the tracks new? Was the train new? I mean, this was, like, the first run of a new route, right?
JAMES: That's right. This was an inaugural run of a $181 million revamp of the Amtrak corridor between the Northwest's two biggest cities, Seattle and Portland. And this was supposed to be sort of a celebration of that project. It's been in the works for about a decade, and the goal here was to make transit a quicker and easier option to travel up and down this busy corridor. Specifically, the project shaves off about 10 minutes from this trip by making - by eliminating some of the curves in the track, and that allows the trains to get up to a faster speed as they go between stations.
GREENE: Wow. So that's something they're going to be obviously looking at, if the faster speeds were a problem. So President Trump tweeted yesterday that this derailment is related to crumbling infrastructure in America. Is that a justified concern given what we know so far about this, Will?
JAMES: There's no evidence of that at the moment. In fact, some of this infrastructure is as new as it could be. This was the inaugural run of this route. So this could be a case of, you know, something terrible happening, either because of or in spite of these upgrades, these changes to the route. And that's something that the National Transportation Safety Board may have something more to say about later today.
GREENE: OK. Will James is reporting for member station KNKX in Tacoma, Wash., on that deadly train derailment. Will, thank you very much.
JAMES: Thanks, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.