7 Takeaways from the Point Defiance NTSB Hearing

Schematic of the 2017 crash site (NTSB)

The National Transportation Safety Board held a hearing yesterday on the fatal December 2017 Amtrak derailment on the Point Defiance Bypass. The Seattle Times, Trains, and Curbed have reports. Here are a few takeaways, after watching the briefing:

Responsibility for safety was diffused, but the buck stops with Sound Transit. Amtrak, the Federal Railroad Administration, Sound Transit, WSDOT… with so many agencies involved, lines of accountability were unclear. Amtrak’s role, in particular, is ambiguous – the company owns neither the tracks nor the trains, but as the nation’s passenger rail operator it is supposed to oversee pre-revenue testing and certify the plans.  In the end, the investigators made one thing clear: “Sound Transit had the ultimate responsibility to ensure that that project, the point defiance bypass, was safe and ready for revenue operations.” Additionally, investigators called out ST, which owns the tracks as the “host railroad,” for providing insufficient signage and schedules for the bypass.

There was a general lack of training. The crew lacked familiarity with the Siemens Charger and didn’t know what to do when the “overspeed” warnings started going off (which was actually a separate issue from the failure to see the curve). Neither the conductor nor the engineer had enough time with this route and this locomotive.

“Everyone hated that curve,” the engineer told investigators. The curve was extra sharp connecting the bypass to the main line. The Wall Street Journal reported after the crash that the bypass project was value-engineered to save money, resulting in a sharper-than-ideal curve.

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