A former BNSF train engineer and railroad safety expert said Tuesday it was “unbelievable” that the engineer operating Amtrak train 501 did not use the emergency brake before the train derailed on Monday morning, killing three people and injuring dozens more.
“If you’re coming into that curve, the second you see where you're at, you're in emergency,” said John Hiatt, who was a train engineer for 10 years and now investigates train crashes for Bremseth law firm. “It's almost like he flat out didn't see it coming -- he just lost track of where he was … the only thing that explains that is he was incapacitated but even then the train will shut itself down over a length of time if he's not doing certain things in the cab.”
The lack of emergency brake activation by the train’s engineer was revealed Tuesday afternoon in a news conference held by the National Transportation Safety Board.
“In reviewing the event recorder, it looks like, in our preliminary analysis, that the emergency brake was automatically activated after -- when the accident was occurring rather being initiated by the engineer,” the NTSB’s Bella Dinh-Zarr said.
The train was going 80 mph, its top speed for the route, in a 30 mph curve onto the overpass over Interstate 5, where it derailed onto vehicles below.
Sound Transit confirmed that signs that the speed limit is dropping to 30 are posted 2 miles before the speed changes and also just before the speed zone approaching the curve.
The NTSB also stated Tuesday that another person was in the cab with the engineer: a conductor who was familiarizing himself with the territory.
But that fact puzzled Hiatt, too. Why hadn’t that person done something?
“The other person in the cab has access to a handle to apply the emergency brakes if he sees a hazard coming,” he said.
Hiatt, who has investigated hundreds of railroad accidents, also wanted to know whether the engineer had started applying normal brakes at any point to even slow the train.
“Maybe the brakes weren't applying properly,” he said. “Maybe he was applying the brakes and they weren't applying and he thought they were going to, but that's pretty unlikely.”
KIRO 7 spoke with a friend of the man who is believed to be the engineer on Amtrak 501.
He said his friend has done at least a dozen practice runs on the new high-speed route, which was on its inaugural run for the public on Monday, and added that his friend had always been a careful and conscientious engineer.