More Speculation re: Amtrak #501.
Everybody wants to know about the wreck … that is, about last week’s Amtrak derailment. I’ve gotten a lot of email from people who know about my interest in train travel, who read these posts, or who are aware that I’m actively involved with the Rail Passengers Association. Everyone wants the inside scoop.
I’m sorry to disappoint. I’m just as distressed as you are—more, probably, because another member of the RPA board of directors, Jim Hamre, was killed in the wreck—but I have no inside information.
That said, we do know that engineers and conductors are supposed to be thoroughly checked out on a route before they can perform as operating crews on that run and there’s a lot more to that than simply watching for the trackside “speed board” signs.
In the same way you and I become familiar with the route that takes us from home to work or from home to the grocery store, “familiarization” for a locomotive engineer includes noting and remembering specific landmarks along the way. For instance, the engineer knows he should begin slowing the train for a station up ahead when he goes under a certain freeway overpass or through a specific grade crossing.
But we now have disturbing media reports of Seattle-based Amtrak engineers and conductors speaking off the record and complaining that there weren’t enough of the orientation trips and on at least one occasion they were crowded into a single rail car as a group.
Particularly damning—at least it would seem so to me—is the allegation made by at least one person that some of the familiarization runs were actually done long after dark.
At this point, it’s necessary and appropriate to point out that train travel is still a very safe mode of transportation—hundreds of times safer, for example, than a routine run to the local Safeway in the family car. However, it is a fact that Amtrak 501 was wrecked, killing three and injuring a hundred or more, because it went into a curve close to 50 miles-an-hour over the safe speed limit.
We know what happened; now we have to know why.