Derailment Probe Looks At Speed, As Critics Cite Amtrak's 'Lax Safety Culture' The National Transportation Safety Board is trying to figure out why the train was traveling 80 mph in a 30 mph zone when it careened off a highway overpass Monday, killing at least three people.
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Derailment Probe Looks At Speed, As Critics Cite Amtrak's 'Lax Safety Culture'

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Derailment Probe Looks At Speed, As Critics Cite Amtrak's 'Lax Safety Culture'

Derailment Probe Looks At Speed, As Critics Cite Amtrak's 'Lax Safety Culture'

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RAY SUAREZ, HOST:

Investigators are working to determine why an Amtrak train was going so fast when it derailed yesterday south of Seattle. They say it was traveling 80 miles an hour as it entered a curve and crossed an interstate highway overpass where the speed limit is just 30 miles per hour. Three people were killed. Dozens more were injured. NPR's David Schaper has the latest.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: For Scott Claggett, it was just another business meeting he was heading to in Portland. But he was a little pumped up to try a new way of getting there.

SCOTT CLAGGETT: This was the first time taking the Amtrak. I was pretty excited. I discovered in the morning that this was a new route, a new time.

SCHAPER: Amtrak Cascades train number 501 was taking a new, faster and more direct route for the first time. And Claggett enjoyed moving around the 80-mile-an-hour train for a while before settling into his seat.

CLAGGETT: Next thing I know it, the train is kind of leaning to the left. I felt like that wasn't a good feeling. And the second that I discovered it wasn't a good feeling is when my car completely twisted and glass, people were all coming towards me, flying in the air.

SCHAPER: Another passenger described bouncing around her car like a pinball. The question for investigators now is why the train was going 50 miles an hour over the speed limit when curving and crossing over Interstate 5. The National Transportation Safety Board's lead investigator, Ted Turpin, says even though it was a new route, the train's engineer had done several trial runs over it in recent weeks.

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TED TURPIN: Basically under Amtrak policy, he couldn't operate the train unless he was qualified and familiar with this territory.

SCHAPER: But the NTSB's Bella Dinh-Zarr says the engineer was not alone in the cab of the locomotive.

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BELLA DINH-ZARR: The two people who were in the cab, as far as we know, are the engineer and a conductor who was familiarizing himself with the territory.

SCHAPER: Dinh-Zarr says this may not be improper. It's part of a conductor's job to become familiar with a new route. But she says investigators are looking into whether the presence of the conductor may have distracted the engineer.

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DINH-ZARR: Absolutely. Distraction is one of our most-wanted list of priorities at the NTSB.

SCHAPER: One piece of evidence that might be telling - Dinh-Zarr says the train's emergency brake was automatically activated when the train started going off the rails and was not activated by the engineer before. The derailment could be another sign of what the NTSB has called a lax safety culture at Amtrak. Just last month, in determining the probable cause of a fatal Amtrak crash in 2016, NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt blasted the railroad, saying, quote, "Amtrak safety culture is failing and is primed to fail again."

There are also questions about whether a safety system called Positive Train Control could have prevented this derailment. Positive Train Control will override an engineer and automatically slow down or stop a train if it's going too fast. But Amtrak officials acknowledge that even though the technology was installed in the locomotive and along this portion of the route, it was still undergoing testing and wasn't yet operational.

SARAH FEINBERG: It's yet another reminder that that technology will save lives. And it's important for railroads to implement it as soon as possible.

SCHAPER: That's Sarah Feinberg, who ran the Federal Railroad Administration under President Obama.

FEINBERG: I mean, this is something that we've been talking about for decades. We started talking about Positive Train Control in the 1960s.

SCHAPER: In 2008, Congress required all U.S. railroads to install and implement Positive Train Control by 2015 but then gave the railroads more time, and most have until 2020. Amtrak now has Positive Train Control activated on only about a quarter of its nationwide passenger rail system, mostly in the northeast corridor - that despite a handful of other fatal train wrecks in recent years that many safety experts say possibly could have been prevented by the technology. David Schaper, NPR News.

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