UPDATE: Amtrak train that derailed in countryside Montana over weekend was passing just below the speed limit


An earlier version of the story follows.

Federal investigators examined overturned cars and a section of track Monday as they sought to understand why an Amtrak train derailed in countryside Montana over the weekend, killing three people.

The westbound Empire Builder was traveling from Chicago to Seattle when it rolled off the track around 4 p.m. Saturday near Joplin, a town of about 200 people. The train, carrying 141 passengers and 16 crew, had two locomotives and 10 cars, eight of which derailed, with some tipping over on their sides. Seven people were hospitalized.

The derailment occurred near a line switch, where one set of tracks turned into two, on a stretch of track that had just been inspected two days earlier, said Matt Jones, a gate -speak of the BNSF Railway said Sunday at a press conference.

National Transportation Safety Board officials were expected to provide an update later Monday. The identity of the victims had not been disclosed.

Investigators will look at “everything,” including the switch, wheels, axles and suspension systems, as well as the geometry and condition of the track, including cracks, said Steven Ditmeyer, rail consultant and former senior official of the Federal Railroad Administration. He said a switch like Joplin’s would be controlled by the BNSF control center in Fort Worth, Texas.

Sometimes railway lines can be warped by heat, creating a loop in the tracks known as sun folds, Ditmeyer said. This was the cause of another derailment in northern Montana in August 1988, when an Empire Builder train derailed about 170 miles (274 kilometers) east of Saco, MT.

The NTSB concluded that an inspection failed to detect a problem with the track, and officials did not warn trains to slow down on that stretch. The team saw that the track had changed, but that the train was traveling at full speed and could not stop before derailing.

Temperatures were in the 80s on Saturday near Joplin, according to the National Weather Service.

Russ Quimby, a former train crash investigator for the NTSB, said the most likely explanation is that the train struck a section of track that warped from the heat, similar to the crash in 1988. He is convinced because the locomotives in front did not derail, but eight lighter coach cars behind them did.

“It also has all the characteristics of a track loop,” Quimby said. “Sometimes a locomotive, which is heavier, will pass through ‘a warped track’, but the cars following will not. You saw it in that accident, ”he said.

Quimby said a switch malfunction appears less likely because he said the switch was inspected when the track in the area was checked last week.

Another possibility was a fault in the rail, said rail safety expert David Clarke, director of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Tennessee. He noted that regular testing does not always detect such problems.

Speed ​​was not a likely factor as trains on this line are fitted with systems that prevent excessive speeds and collisions, which seems to have worked in this case, Clarke said.

The speed limit on that stretch of track is 79 mph, said John Haitt, a former BNSF engineer who is with the Minneapolis-based Bremseth law firm that provides representation for railroad accident injuries. . Haitt, who is at the scene in Montana, said Failroad employees he spoke to said there was a weak spot, a low point on the track in that area.

Two locomotives and two cars at the front of the train reached the switch and continued on the main track, but the other eight cars derailed. He said it was not clear if some of the last cars moved onto the second track.

“Did the switch play a role? It could be that the front of the train struck the switch and started to fishtail and the rear end of the train tipped over, ”said Clarke.

The derailment site is approximately 150 miles (241 kilometers) northeast of Helena, MT, and approximately 30 miles (48 kilometers) from the Canadian border. The tracks crossed vast fields of recently harvested golden brown wheat and roughly parallel to US Highway 2.

A team of 14 members of the National Transportation Safety Board, including railway signaling specialists, will investigate the cause of the crash, NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss said.

Allan Zarembski, director of the University of Delaware’s railway engineering and safety program, said he did not want to speculate but suspected the derailment was due to a problem with the track, train equipment or of them.

Railways have “virtually eliminated” major derailments by human error after implementing a nationwide system designed to stop trains before an accident, Zarembski said.

The derailment comes as Congress works to finalize a $ 1 trillion, two-party infrastructure package that includes $ 66 billion to improve Amtrak service. That’s less than the $ 80 billion originally demanded by President Joe Biden – who drove Amtrak from Delaware to Washington while in the Senate – but it would be the biggest federal investment in passenger rail service since Amtrak was founded 50 years ago.

Most of the money would go to repairs and upgrades along the congested 457-mile northeast corridor of rail service, as well as intercity routes with higher commuter traffic. About $ 16 billion is also aimed at expanding Amtrak’s national service to America at large, particularly to rural areas.

Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn said the company was working with the NTSB, the Federal Railroad Administration and local law enforcement, sharing their “sense of urgency” to determine what happened in Montana.

Most of those on the train were treated and released for their injuries, but five of the most seriously injured were in stable condition at Benefis Health System Hospital in Great Falls, MT, the door said. word of Benefis, Whitney Bania.

Two other people were at Logan Health, a hospital in Kalispell, MT, spokeswoman Melody Sharpton said.

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