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NTSB holds hearing on deadly Amtrak train derailment near DuPont

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) began the first of two days of hearings on the safety of Amtrak. It comes about seven months after the deadly train derailment of Amtrak Cascades 501 that killed three people and injured dozens near DuPont.

The train was travelling 78 mph through a 30 mph corridor along the route.

The NTSB also continues to piece together the causes of last year's train crashes here and in Cayce, South Carolina, that killed two people.

“Our purpose for being here is to make sure that things like this don't happen again,” said Robert Sumwalt, NTSB chairman.

The train crash in Washington state killed three people and injured 57 aboard the train. Ten people were also injured in cars on Interstate 5, when the train derailed onto the freeway.

Officials with the Washington Department of Transportation, Sound Transit, Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration are scheduled to provide testimony during the hearing.

NTSB investigators will be gathering testimony on crew performance, track conditions and design, and train performance as well.

In one such exchange, the NTSB questioned the performance of the train cars made by Talgo Inc. According to questioning brought up by NTSB investigator Michael Hiller, he said the Federal Railroad Authority (FRA) expressed concern over the predicted performance of Talgo trains in “high energy events.”

“Because of the greater risk of lateral displacement, a greater risk of secondary collisions was predicted,” said Hiller.

Talgo trains were granted through a grandfathering process in 2009 after the agency concluded they were safe under speeds of 50 mph. According to Gary Fairbanks, staff director of FRA’s Motive Power and Equipment Division, the grandfathering petition process was complicated and took 10 years to go through.

A Talgo train was expected to experience a greater lateral displacement than conventional equipment and articulated connections were expected to fail, said Hiller, citing a report.

“Now that we have evidence of how the Talgo train set performs in a crash, does the FRA have any concerns that would cause you to reexamine your decision to grandfather this equipment?” asked Hiller.

The Talgo trains sets, which were primarily used in Europe, were modified and refurbished to meet North American standards and actual grandfathering was for in-frame compression, said Fairbanks. The cars performed the way they should have because they did not compress, he said.

One of the more telling moments of the hearing happened in the final hour when NTSB board member Earl Weener questioned who was responsible for the design of the curve that ultimately derailed the train near DuPont.

“In this case, this curb was problematic. Who had the responsibility or determine to take the first crack at mitigations of an 80 mile-an-hour to 30 mile-an-hour curve?” he asked.

There was a long period silence until he continued by stating, “That’s what I thought.”

According to Ronald Pate, director of the Rail, Freight and Ports Division for the Washington State Department of Transportation, the state contracted with a separate engineering company to design the route. He went on to say that many parties eventually signed off on the design.

There were also questions as to whether the train’s conductor had enough time to familiarize himself with the controls.

In the hearing, Sumwalt questioned Mike DeCataldo, Amtrak’s vice president of transportation operations, on the engineer’s qualifications before the first revenue run.

That was the first solo trip for the engineer operating a Siemens charger locomotive, said Sumwalt.

According to Sumwalt, per interviews with he engineer, he only had about 60 seconds from the time he sat down, to when he moved the throttle to move the train.

“That is not a normal expectation,” said DeCataldo.

According to Amtrak, they have made changes to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

“Looking back we have seen some gaps in our qualification process and we will look to address those with the new qualification plan for the bypass.”

Amtrak says they have instituted new regulations in place, like having engineers and conductors do a minimum of four runs on the route before it goes into service for the public.

The engineer was qualified to operate the train on December 8, 10 days before the first run.

Sound Transit owns and maintains the tracks. Amtrak, which has a contract with the state, provides passenger train service along the route.

The hearing continues on Wednesday.