Though the investigation into the cause(s) of the Amtrak derailment on Monday, December 18 near Tacoma, Washington remains ongoing, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) official Bella Dinh-Zarr provided updates regarding potential sources of the crash in a recent news conference. The derailment killed three passengers and injured many others, including crew members working on the train at the time.
While it was previously determined that the train was traveling at least 50mph over the speed limit at the time of derailment, investigators have also recently discovered that the train’s emergency brake was activated automatically (rather than manually), likely indicating the collective hazard of the impending curve and the excessive speed was not anticipated by the train’s engineer. Further, there is reason to believe that more than one person was in the front cab of the locomotive at the time of the crash; along with the train’s engineer, a conductor-in-training was said to be present, likely attempting to familiarize himself with the region. Though Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson indicated it is not uncommon for multiple persons to be in the front cab, there is concern that such circumstances potentially led to distraction on the part of the engineer. Ms. Dinh-Zarr stated that cellphone records of all crew members will be reviewed to further investigate this growing speculation.
The NTSB also plans to conduct interviews with the seven crew members who had been working on the train at the time of the derailment. However, it is presently unclear exactly when such interviews will take place, as all of the crew is currently being treated for injuries at a local hospital.
Investigators additionally plan to inspect data recorders retrieved from the crash that had been located within the front and back locomotives. Cameras had also been located on the train within the engineer’s cab, but were severely damaged, and have since been sent to Washington D.C. for attempted restoration. Ms. Dinh-Zarr explained that she hopes it will be possible to extract images from the cameras to assist in determining the engineer’s state of mind during the moments before the crash.
Though the exact cause of the crash has yet to be determined, there is little uncertainty regarding the high likelihood of a plethora of future lawsuits against Amtrak as a result of the deaths and injuries sustained. However, due to the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act, a federal law enacted in 1997, the collective allowable amount of damages to all victims and/or victim family members may be capped at $295 million (raised from $200 million with 2015’s Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act)), which many believe is insufficient to provide adequate compensation to all affected persons. While the Act’s original intent was to protect the railroad industry, critics claim that it simply guards the industry against sufficient accountability, thereby further victimizing the persons involved.