The Terrifying Truth About the Amtrak Train Derailment

A high-speed derailment of an Amtrak train occurred in Washington that left three people dead and over 100 people injured. The clean up will take a long time, but the questions that need to be answered will take longer. As it turns out, this is not a problem that sprung up out of the blue. It was a problem people knew about that came together in a perfect storm of negligence, failing infrastructure, and speed.

1. The route

An Amtrak train travels through a field of wildflowers.

This train was designed to encourage faster travel and business. | Amtrak

The 501 train from Seattle to Portland was supposed to be a huge innovation for transportation in the area. It was a high-speed train designed to create better access between the two cities and encourage business. High-speed trains have been a mainstay in Europe for quite some time, and have had some extremely beneficial impacts on their economy. The hope was that this train route would inspire more trains like it, and do the same here in the United States. That being so, it seems like it was doomed before it took its maiden voyage.

Next: The failures were predicted just weeks before the disaster.

2. The mayor that predicted it

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A few weeks before the derailment, Lake City, Washington, Mayor Don Anderson said in a meeting that the project “endangers our citizens” and believed that it was only a matter of time before someone was killed. In the worst possible moment of vindication, that prediction came true when the train careened off the tracks, striking interstate 5 and killing three people and injuring nearly a hundred more. Said Anderson:

Come back when there is that accident, and try to justify not putting in those safety enhancements, or you can go back now and advocate for the money to do it, because this project was never needed and endangers our citizens.

His concerns were with the speed of the train around turns and the proximity to the highway. In the same meeting, Don Anderson asked Department of Transportation presenters to “do better” when it came to safety features on the route.

Next: Apparently, they did not heed his warnings. 

3. Why the train failed

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The first failure is that the train was operating at way too high of a speed in that particular area. The train was traveling at a rate of 80 miles per hour. The area it was traveling through was designed to be used at a rate of 30 miles per hour. At such a high rate of speed, the train began to bounce inside its own tracks and eventually left the rails and landed on the highway.

Next: The second failure was meant to prevent the first.

4. Unactivated safety protocols

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A Positive Train Control, or PTC, device is a technology that will automatically slow a train when the train is entering a dangerous area. The PTC was ordered by Congress in the wake of another disaster in Los Angeles in 2008. But the PTC on this train had not been installed yet due to extremely high costs, even though the sweeping changes were supposed to be in place by 2015.

Next: How to move forward

5. What can be done?

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What is needed is a massive overhaul of our entire infrastructure. Currently, the U.S. infrastructure rating is a D+. According to the World Economic Forum, the U.S. ranks 25th behind countries like Bahrain or Saudi Arabia. Improvements to our infrastructure, including safety improvements, could very well have prevented a disaster like this.

Next: What Congress is doing to help the U.S.’s failing infrastructure.

6. Current legislation that could fix the problem (or make it worse)

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As crazy as it might sound, the Trump administration does have an infrastructure plan they want to get done. It touts a plan to raise $200 billion over the next decade toward infrastructure spending. A short cry from his originally promised $1 trillion. However, that same plan cuts massively into Amtrak’s budget and essentially gets rid of the spending for safety improvements like the ones mentioned before.

It’s also apparently clear that the infrastructure plan, a six-page memo, doesn’t actually say anything about how any of the money raised will be spent or how the proposed rule changes will actually help.

Next: When the next derailment will come.

7. How common are train derailments?

High-speed train on the Gotthard railway

Is this likely to happen again? | railelectropower/iStock/Getty Images

Train derailments are essentially like a flat tire, both in how often they occur and their relative severity. Trains derail all the time, but they are often not a problem. If you are at work in your parking lot, a flat tire is not that big of a problem. If you are flying down the highway, then there are going to be some significant consequences. The only thing that will prevent those dangerous incidents is better spending on our safety infrastructure.

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