NTSB releases accounts from Amtrak 501 crew

The engineer operating an Amtrak train that derailed near DuPont told federal investigators he was planning to brake about one mile before the curve, but didn't see a key milepost marker or a speed warning sign before the curve. Six seconds before the derailment, investigators had said in late December, the engineer had made a comment about the high rate of speed and tried slow the train down.

The 55-year-old engineer and the 48-year-old conductor who were in the lead locomotive at the time of the crash were seriously injured and unable to answer questions from investigators until last week.

The engineer also said he was not distracted by a conductor-in-training who was riding with him in the cab during Amtrak's inaugural run with paying passengers from Seattle to Portland using the Point Defiance Bypass.

He says he was aware that the curve and the 30 miles per hour speed reduction were coming up at milepost 19.8 on the track, and he had planned to initiate braking about one mile prior to the curve. Data from the rear locomotive showed the train was traveling almost 50 miles per hour over the speed limit at the time of the derailment.

The engineer said he then misinterpreted another signal at the 19.8 milepost.

The engineer saw the 30-mph sign at the entrance to the curve and applied the brakes shortly before the train derailed and tumbled off the overpass as it entered the curve, the NTSB said.

"The engineer said that he saw mileposts 16 and 17 but didn't recall seeing milepost 18 or the 30 mph advance speed sign, which was posted two miles ahead of the speed-restricted curve", the safety agency said.

The engineer completed seven to 10 "observational trips" in a locomotive on the new stretch of track in the five weeks prior to the derailment, the NTSB said.

They did not speak much during the train ride and the conductor spent his time familiarizing himself with the route, he told investigators. The conductor and the engineer had never worked together before. He felt rested at the start of the trip, he told investigators. He said he heard the engineer mumble something, looked up and sensed the train had become "airborne", according to the NTSB.

The conductor told investigators that there was minimal conversation during the trip because he was looking at paperwork to learn the territory.

In addition to human performance and operations, investigators are developing information on a wide range of areas, including signals and train control, track and engineering, mechanical, crashworthiness, survival factors and recorders.

The investigation is expected to take up to two years.

  • Joey Payne