Amtrak Derailment in Washington State Kills Three
December 18, 2017
- An accident involving Amtrak Cascades passenger train in Washington mirrors the crash of an Amtrak train en route to New York City in which the engineer accelerated to over 105 mph while approaching a 50 mph curve.
- Railroad companies have been slow to install “positive train control” technology to automatically slow or stop a train if it is going too fast.
- Early reporting of the Washington Amtrak derailment has estimated the train’s speed to be 81 mph while the curve had a posted speed of 30 mph.
- The Kreindler firm represented surviving family members and passengers injured in the derailment of a Metro-North commuter train in the Bronx that killed four people.
Amtrak Cascades passenger train 501 derailed in Washington state on December 18, 2017. The crash took the lives of several people and injured many more; the accident was particularly tragic coming a week before the holidays. Unfortunately, we have seen far too many of these entirely avoidable accidents, and the Kreindler firm and its partners, including David C. Cook, Andrew J. Maloney and Daniel O. Rose, have represented families of loved ones lost and those injured over many years of litigating train disasters.
Most recently, in a May 2015 Amtrak crash, eight passengers were killed and over one hundred passengers were injured just north of Philadelphia en route to New York City. The investigation concluded that the train’s engineer accelerated the train during a straightaway to over 105 MPH as it approached a sharp curve that required the train to slow to 50 MPH. The engineer did not attempt to slow the train until it was already in the process of derailing. The train hit a light tower, which then crushed one of the cars and flipped several other cars over. Investigators could not explain the engineer’s “lack of situational awareness,” which should have required him to slow the train, and investigators assumed he was distracted. To compound the tragedy of this needless and entirely avoidable tragedy, the northbound track where the derailment occurred was not equipped with “positive train control” technology (PTC), which was installed on the southbound track. This technology was mandated by Congress in 2008 because it can automatically slow or stop a train if it is going too fast approaching a curve or another train on the same track, thereby adding a safety feature that can override an engineer’s input – or lack thereof – at the controls of the train. Railroad companies have been reluctant or slow to install the technology and have repeatedly asked for more time to complete the installation of the PTC technology even though lives continue to be at risk almost 10 years after they were directed to install the lifesaving safety equipment.
In an eerie parallel, the Washington Amtrak derailment took place after a long southbound straightaway that required the engineer to slow the train to make a left curve to cross the bridge over Highway I-5. Early reporting has estimated the train’s speed to be 81 mph, but the curve had a posted speed of 30 mph. That information will need to be confirmed when the onboard data recorders, known as the black box, are reviewed. In a tragic twist of irony, this was the maiden voyage for Amtrak with the opening of this new track bypass, recently built to reduce the travel time between Seattle and Portland to take out curves – which slow a train down – and avoid local and freight train traffic on the older coastal tracks that ran along the coast nearby.
The Kreindler firm handled another recent train derailment disaster representing surviving family members and injured passengers from the December 2013 derailment of a Metro North commuter train at Spuyten Duyvil in the Riverdale section of the Bronx in New York City that killed four people and injured many others who were on their way to Manhattan to enjoy December holiday events. The investigation, in that case, concluded that the train’s engineer had fallen asleep as the speeding train approached a sharp curve in the early morning hours, similar to the early departure from Seattle in the December 2017 Washington Amtrak crash. The NTSB concluded that the Metro-North engineer had undiagnosed sleep apnea that prevented him from getting sufficient sleep in the nights leading up to the derailment. Investigators will surely be examining the Washington Amtrak engineer’s blood for any signs of drugs or alcohol, or use of a cell phone – all of which are forbidden – but will also look at his health and recent sleep cycles.
The 1997 Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act limited a railroad’s total liability for damages (regardless of the number of victims) to $200 million. In 2015, following the crash of Amtrak 188 in Philadelphia, Congress agreed to adjust the cap to $295 million to reflect the increase in the cost of living since 1997. The bottom line is that per federal statute, regardless of how many people are killed or injured and regardless of how serious the injuries are, the maximum compensation that all of the plaintiffs as a group can recover from all of the defendants is currently $295 million.
Kreindler currently represents 15 passengers from a Metro-North train accident in Valhalla, NY, which took the lives of six people and injured dozens more after a collision with a car at a grade crossing. Our firm has a long history of representing passengers and their families who have been injured in train accidents.