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Questions and answers about the derailment

January 25 Update 
The National Transportation Safety Board on Jan. 25, 2018, issued an update on its investigation into the Dec. 18 Amtrak Cascades derailment, including details about the interviews with the engineer and conductor. WSDOT is committed to continuing to work closely with the NTSB and our partners on the investigation.

January 10 Update
WSDOT, Amtrak, Pierce County and the Washington State Patrol presented before the House Transportation Committee on January 10, 2017. Information shared with the legislators included the following:

What caused the crash?
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is conducting an investigation of the crash and will make a determination regarding the likely cause. It is inappropriate to speculate as to cause in advance of the NTSB Report. Information on the ongoing status of the NTSB investigation is available on NTSB’s website.

What is the status of the victims?
The Dec. 18 derailment took three lives and caused numerous injuries. Two of the people killed were members of the WSDOT family and all three were advocates for passenger rail who were on board to celebrate the first passenger run on the new alignment. There were 77 passengers and 6 crew (5 Amtrak personnel and 1 Talgo employee) crew on board. Emergency services officials are still totaling the number of people treated at various hospitals to avoid any duplication, but approximately 70 people – from the train and the roadway below – were transported to local hospitals.

Why operate Amtrak Cascades trains in the Point Defiance Bypass corridor prior to the implementation of positive train control (PTC)?
It is important to stress that PTC is not currently a legal requirement or a prerequisite for safe rail operations, but is an additional value added safety overlay mechanism. Amtrak Cascades had provided more than 14 million boardings without a passenger fatality prior to Monday’s tragic crash. Amtrak has not and does not operate its trains on the Amtrak Cascades corridor, including the Point Defiance alignment, with PTC.

Prior to the opening of the Point Defiance Bypass, Amtrak served Tacoma from a station that was separated from the core of the City and unconnected to most other modes of travel. The new station location on the Point Defiance Bypass alignment at Freighthouse Square enables seamless connections to Sounder commuter rail, Tacoma Link light rail, Greyhound bus service, and regional and local transit bus service.

The goal for WSDOT is to incrementally improve service on the entire Amtrak Cascades corridor, through two additional daily roundtrips between Seattle and Portland (up from four), faster travel times (10 minutes time saving), and increased on-time reliability (88% or greater). The 20 federally funded rail improvement projects undertaken over the last seven years were designed to meet those service outcomes. They included, among others, the re-routing of trains to the improved Point Defiance Bypass corridor, opening the new Amtrak station in Tacoma, purchasing eight new Siemens Charger locomotives, and improvements to tracks and signals throughout the corridor.

Was the corridor “rushed into service?”
WSDOT received $800 million in federal grants from the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to deliver a high-speed rail reconstruction program, including the Point Defiance Bypass, in the corridor between Vancouver, WA and Blaine, WA. The grant was awarded in 2010 and the funding had to be expended by 2017 or returned to the federal government. Some have speculated that service on the Bypass was rushed to avoid losing federal construction funding.

The plan always was to start the additional service when construction was completed and the host railroad determined it was operationally ready to do so. The federal funding was for construction, not operations, and construction was completed within the seven-year timeframe of the grant. Every grant WSDOT receives has an end date, and the agency is very adept at managing multi-year construction programs with deadlines. Amtrak initiated operations in the Point Defiance Bypass corridor to achieve the benefits described above when it was deemed safe to do so, and in consultation with WSDOT, Sound Transit, and others.

By developing strong partnerships and adhering to construction deadlines, WSDOT completed the 20 federally funded construction projects on time and on budget. The work stretched between the Canadian border near Blaine and the Port of Vancouver USA in Southwest Washington.

Is the Amtrak Cascades corridor safe?
The bypass corridor received all necessary approvals and it is safe for passenger rail operation. Multiple tests occurred over the last year to ensure tracks and signals functioned properly, equipment was certified to operate on the corridor, and train crews were familiar with the new route. All tests were completed successfully.

Passenger trains, including Amtrak Cascades, currently must slow down due to curves, single-track tunnels, bridges and other elements throughout the corridor from Vancouver, British Columbia to Eugene, OR.

The Point Defiance Bypass project – part of the overall corridor – reroutes passenger trains to an inland route. The bypass is on an existing rail line that runs along the west side of Interstate 5 (I-5), from south Tacoma through Lakewood and DuPont. It reconnects back to the BNSF Railway main line near Nisqually, on the east side of I-5. It also adds a new Amtrak Cascades station in Tacoma's Freighthouse Square building. The movement to the Bypass separates passenger trains from freight trains on a busy section of the corridor that often experiences delays for Amtrak Cascades trains. In addition to significant freight train traffic, the previous coastal route between Tacoma and Steilacoom included a number of curves and single-track tunnels. Approximately $180 million has been invested in improvements to the Point Defiance Bypass.

When will Amtrak Cascades trains resume travel in the bypass corridor?
The Dec. 18 crash of Amtrak Cascades Train 501 was a tragic incident. The NTSB is investigating the crash and has released preliminary findings. A full report from NTSB will take much longer. The NTSB investigation will certainly inform decision-making going forward.

The crash damaged the railroad trestle over Interstate 5 and some signal equipment adjacent to the bridge. Sound Transit, the owner of the facility, will repair this damage and Amtrak has committed to paying for the repairs. Amtrak also has committed to replacing the locomotive and rail cars destroyed in the crash. Amtrak will be technically able to run service on the corridor after repairs are completed, appropriate inspections conducted and permissions granted for operation.

WSDOT announced on Dec. 21 that Amtrak Cascades passenger rail service will not return to the Point Defiance Bypass route until positive train control (PTC) technology is activated on the bypass. This is not because WSDOT has any reason to believe the tracks are unsafe – the tracks were thoroughly inspected and tested. The decision was made to be sensitive both to the people involved in the tragic derailment and ongoing passengers. WSDOT also wants time to reach out to communities along the bypass before service resumes.

Amtrak Cascades trains will use the original route for the time being. The original route does not yet have PTC activated for Amtrak passenger trains, but there have been millions of successful boardings on it during the past two decades.

WSDOT has received assurances from Amtrak that they will meet the federal deadline of Dec. 31, 2018 for operating in the Amtrak Cascades corridor under PTC and will make every effort to advance the deployment date.


Amtrak Cascades Train 501 derailed on Dec. 18 at approximately 7:34 a.m. Pacific Time. The derailment occurred in DuPont, Washington, where the railroad crosses I-5 southwest of the Eagles Pride Golf Course – at railroad milepost 19.79. The railroad bridge crosses the highway just west of where Mounts Rd SW and Nisqually Rd SW meet and also cross I-5.

The track where the derailment occurred – known as the Lakewood Subdivision or the Point Defiance Bypass – is owned by Sound Transit, which also operates its Sounder commuter trains over a portion of it. BNSF dispatches trains over the bypass.

Amtrak Cascades Train 501, operated by Amtrak, consisted of a Talgo constructed trainset containing 12 cars; (1) one power car, (1) one baggage car, (1) one lounge car, (1) one bistro car, (2) two business class cars, (6) six coach cars. There were (2) two locomotives, one on the front and one on the rear of the train. A standard Talgo coach car contains approximately 36 seats. The Talgo trainset and the Charger locomotive on the front of the train involved in the derailment are owned by WSDOT. Amtrak owns the locomotive on the rear of the train set.

Status of highway and rail service
The crash initially closed Interstate 5 in both directions immediately south of Mounts Road and suspended passenger train service between Portland and Seattle. As they were not directly impacted, the northbound lanes on I-5 were reopened shortly after the crash.

Passenger rail service was redirected to the original Point Defiance  alignment later that day. Given the return to the previous route and the loss of train equipment, Amtrak schedules are being updated moving forward.

The southbound lanes of I-5 were directly impacted by the crash, with a locomotive and several rail cars falling off a rail trestle onto I-5 and blocking the lanes. After victims were recovered and the crash scene documented, Amtrak contractors removed the locomotive and cars, Sound Transit and WSDOT inspectors checked the bridge and the pavement, and WSDOT cleared debris, repaired guardrail and reopened two of the three lanes at 5:00 pm on December 20, approximately 57 hours after the crash. The remaining lane was opened by 10:00 p.m. that evening.

Prior to reopening the southbound lanes, WSDOT worked with Washington State Patrol, Pierce County, JBLM, and numerous local governments to implement several detour routes during the recovery, investigation, and clean up. Information on the routes was communicated to the traveling public and the agencies involved sought to optimize the detours with modified signal timing, flaggers at key intersections, and messaging to encourage people to delay travel or take alternate routes.


Amtrak Cascades train service began in 1994 between Seattle and Portland and eventually expanded to its current corridor between Eugene, Oregon and Vancouver, B.C. The corridor is 467 miles long; 300 miles in Washington, 134 miles in Oregon, and 33 miles in British Columbia. Most tracks in Washington are owned by BNSF; tracks in Oregon are owned by Union Pacific; and the Point Defiance Bypass tracks are owned by Sound Transit.

A corridor partnership agreement is in place between WSDOT and Oregon DOT. The two states worked together to develop the Cascades Rail Corridor Management Workplan. This plan guides development of the corridor and positions both states for the best opportunities for funding and contract performance.

WSDOT is responsible for train operations management and reporting; budgeting; performance tracking; construction project management and reporting; local, regional, state, and national program coordination; working with the freight rail partners that own the railroad tracks; public outreach; and marketing activities.

  • Operations – WSDOT provides program direction and management of the Amtrak Cascades planning, service delivery, investment, and maintenance contracts.
  • Capital Delivery - WSDOT is responsible for development and delivery of projects that will increase the frequency and reliability of passenger rail service. Between 2010 and 2017, this included a nearly $800 million program that resulted in the completion of 20 federally funded projects.

The Amtrak Cascades service operates more than 4,000 trains annually. This consists of 11 trains operating in the Pacific Northwest each day with stops in 18 cities. This service includes:

  • 4 daily round trips between Seattle and Portland (scheduled to increase to 6 trips starting Dec. 18)
  • 2 daily round trips between Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia
  • 2 daily round trips between Portland and Eugene, Ore.

Point Defiance Bypass Project
The Point Defiance Bypass Project, which commenced in late 2014, was the final project to be completed by WSDOT as part of its $800 million in federal high-speed rail grants under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. This funding was awarded to allow WSDOT to deliver incremental and strategic rail infrastructure improvements for emerging higher-speed rail service, expand travel choices, and foster economic growth in Washington state. The bypass project, along with other enhancements along the corridor, allowed for the launch of two additional daily roundtrip trains between Seattle and Portland. Sound Transit currently uses a portion of the bypass for Sounder commuter rail service to Lakewood.


Positive Train Control (PTC) is a relatively new technology in the United States that can control train movements automatically. Under PTC, onboard systems can actively control braking of a train if an engineer fails to operate within established parameters.

It is important to stress that PTC is not a prerequisite for safe rail operations, but is an additional value-added safety overlay mechanism. Amtrak Cascades had provided 14 million boardings without a passenger fatality prior to Monday’s tragic crash. Sound Transit’s Sounder commuter rail service has provided 36 million boardings without a single passenger fatality due to derailment or collision.

Why has PTC taken so long?
The NTSB has recommended the widespread installation of PTC technology across the national rail network for a great many years. The federal government initially required nationwide PTC implementation on all passenger rail corridors by December 2015. This requirement was passed following the tragic Chatsworth, California Metrolink crash that claimed the lives of 25 individuals. Congress eventually extended the deadline to Dec. 31, 2018.

PTC equipment
There are three general categories of PTC equipment: (1) wayside equipment, for which the track owner has installation and operational responsibility; (2) onboard equipment, for which the train owner has installation and operational responsibility; and (3) back office systems, for which the rail operator has installation and operational responsibility.

What is the status of onboard equipment on Amtrak Cascades Charger locomotives?
PTC hardware, Wabtec Railway Electronics, and sub components, have been installed in the eight new locomotives WSDOT purchased from Siemens, including the locomotive involved in Monday’s derailment. The major hardware components were part of the procurement of the locomotives and were in place when all eight locomotives were delivered to WSDOT over the last year. However, additional components are necessary to integrate the onboard equipment with the back office operations and host railroads’ (Sound Transit, BNSF and Union Pacific) wayside systems on the Amtrak Cascades corridor. When the wayside system is fully activated with all of the necessary data files and radios, the PTC hardware on the Siemens locomotives can be configured, tested and placed into operation.

What is the status of PTC in the Point Defiance Bypass corridor?
Sound Transit owns the Lakewood Subdivision or Point Defiance Bypass from Tacoma to the DuPont/Nisqually area, where Monday’s incident occurred. While Sounder trains do not currently operate further south than Lakewood, in 2015 Sound Transit executed a contract under a partnership with WSDOT to replace and upgrade the tracks and equipment, including installation of PTC wayside equipment between Lakewood and Nisqually to enable the tracks to handle passenger rail service. This partnership has focused on enabling Amtrak trains to bypass the longer tracks; separate passenger and freight trains; and reduce delays along the shores of Puget Sound.

Sound Transit has installed wayside PTC equipment on the entire length of the segment from Tacoma to Nisqually, though the PTC system is not yet operational and certified. In order for the service to be fully certified for use, it must communicate seamlessly and routinely with the "back office systems" between Amtrak and the host railroads.

On the segments of Washington’s Amtrak Cascades corridor beyond the Point Defiance Bypass, BNSF is already operating PTC for its freight trains. The Amtrak Cascades route from Eugene, Oregon to the Canadian border is awaiting back office system integration between Amtrak and the host railroads to activate PTC for passenger trains by the December 2018 deadline.