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Amtrak Cascades train derails in DuPont: Everything we know so far

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At least three people are dead and dozens were injured

One of the new locomotives pulling the Amtrak Cascades line.
Courtesy of WSDOT

Editor’s note: This article was first published at 10 a.m. on December 18 and has been updated multiple times. This story is developing. We expect to have updates throughout the week.

On the first day of the brand-new Amtrak Cascades route, a train derailed near Mounts Road in DuPont, near Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM). The high-speed train had departed the new Tacoma Dome train station and was heading south on its way to Olympia and Portland. Train 501 had about 78 passengers and five crew members aboard, according to Amtrak—the Washington State Patrol has since said that seven crew members were aboard.

Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee has declared a state of emergency.

The Amtrak Cascades line runs from Vancouver, British Columbia, through Eugene, Oregon, and is jointly managed by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT). This specific train was part of a newly launched high-speed service between Seattle and Portland.

What happened?

Details are still forthcoming, but here’s what we know: Around 7:40 a.m., the train was moving at about 80 miles per hour along a stretch of track called the Point Defiance Bypass when it derailed, spilling over an overpass onto a busy stretch of I-5, striking cars on the roadway.

Lots of things about this run were new—not just the route, but the high-speed locomotives pulling the train. The new trains, and the tracks they were running on, included equipment designed to stop the train in the event of a hazard, but the system controlling that equipment was still in testing and wasn’t scheduled to be activated until next year.

13 out of 14 cars—that’s all passenger cars and one locomotive—derailed.

Sound Transit, who owns the stretch of track where the crash occurred, said speed limit for the curve preceding the crash site is 30 miles per hour—and WSDOT confirmed that the speed limit of 30 miles per hour is posted two miles before the curve.

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) officials found in their investigation that the train was going 78 miles per hour at the time of the incident, although it hasn’t been officially confirmed whether speed played a role in the crash.

NTSB reviewed internal and external security cameras and found that the engineer was not using an electronic device when the train derailed. The engineer’s actions “were consistent with the application of the locomotive’s brakes.”

The full investigation could take one to two years.

This was the first day of public use for the tracks, after what WSDOT said were “weeks of inspections and testing.” The tracks were previously owned by BNSF and were used for freight and military purposes before WSDOT received federal grants to improve them for passenger rail.

The NTSB said that crews had been training on the tracks for two weeks.

The new route, instead of running along the waterfront, ran inland parallel to I-5. JBLM’s official Twitter account posted a warning last week about the high-speed trains intersecting with base traffic.

We don’t have any answers about what caused the crash, but NTSB investigators specializing in several fields, including operations, mechanics, and tracks, are in the area trying to figure out the root cause of the crash.

How many people are hurt?

We don’t know all the details yet. The Associated Press initially reported at least six train passengers had died, but only three deaths have been confirmed. The Tacoma News Tribune initially reported that 77 people were being treated at Pierce and Thurston County hospitals, but most have settled on a more vague “dozens” at this point.

The identities of all three passengers who lost their lives in the crash have been confirmed: Friends and rail advocates Zack Willhoite and Jim Hamre, 35 and 61, were onboard, excited to experience the first trip of the new rail line. Benjamin Gran, 40, of Auburn, has also been confirmed dead.

While the derailed train hit cars on the roadway, no motorist fatalities have been reported.

What if I knew someone on the train?

There’s a “family reunification center” set up at Dupont City Hall. The Washington State Patrol advises to not come to the scene of the accident.

Amtrak said to call 1-800-523-9101 with questions about friends and family who were on the train.

At a news conference late Monday morning, NTSB vice president Bella Dinh-Zarr said the incident is eligible for the Federal Family Assistance Plan for Rail Passenger Disasters, and that the NTSB is working with those affected.

Optum Health also has an emotional support helpline.

Is train service canceled?

While the first couple of Amtrak Cascades trains after the crash were canceled, train service along the line has resumed—with some precautions.

Starting Wednesday morning, Amtrak is operating Cascades service from Eugene to Portland “with substitute equipment and limited amenities, including no food service, checked baggage service, business class or bikes.”

Trains 505 and 508 will operate only between Seattle and Portland instead of Portland and Eugene. Trains 515 and 510 will operate between Portland and Eugene—riders will transfer at the platform in Portland.

Amtrak won’t be running any trains along the derailment route until safety systems are in use.

Sound Transit Sounder trains are operating as scheduled.

What roads are closed?

After a two-day closure, Interstate 5 opened all lanes to traffic on Wednesday night.