Amtrak derailment over I-5 raises questions

Amtrak train was maiden voyage of high-speed rail service

December 18, 2017

Christmas décor is supposed to be dangling this time of year, not an Amtrak passenger car. Yet that was the news I received this morning (Dec. 18); an Amtrak train derailed right over I-5 in Washington State, leaving a train car slumped on the interstate during the morning rush hour. At press time crews were on the scene and emergency responders were treating it as a mass casualty situation. Nobody ever wants to hear this, but when it is during Christmastime it really hits a nerve.

The unique part of this story is the trained that derailed, Amtrak train 501 which departed from Tacoma at 8 a.m., was a maiden voyage. It was part of the Cascades service from Seattle to Portland and was supposed to be rated for a maximum speed of 79 mph. The service started on Monday, Dec. 18.

High-speed rail was like a huge inflatable Santa Clause of the Obama administration. Those in his White House wanted the whole world to see, even though the system was not even close to the one in Japan. Track in the U.S. simply could not handle trains ripping through at 150 mph, so 80 mph would have to do. Now I’m questioning the 80 mark. Of course, investigation of the cause of this derailment is still pending, and it will most likely be weeks before it is revealed. But my gut is telling me the system just wasn’t ready to handle the U.S. definition of “high speeds.” Maybe something caused a wobble, and at 80 mph that wobble turned into a sway that cause the derailment? It’s all speculative right now, but before Amtrak and others take another step toward high-speed rail they better make sure the system can handle it. This was supposed to have already taken place, but when dealing with Amtrak and other private rail entities you really never can tell. I mean, just look at most of the rail bridges across the U.S. Many appear to have handled their last load, and are about to collapse.

If it is due to the track or the bridge structure itself, I hope this leads to lessons learned and preventive measures. Everybody deserves to be home for Christmas, and some might not be after this tragedy. Let’s hope those in power did not build the final product of high-speed rail like it was a cheap after-the-holidays bargain. 

A reader had as response to my blog. Here it is, unedited:

As a proud member of the railroad industry, I take strong umbrage at your overt slant that reads more like a story planted in Pravda. Instead of building more congested lanes of traffic on I-5, the State of Washington, Feds, Amtrak, and the BNSF Railway diligently planned and constructed this new right-of-way in order to speed-up the ever popular Amtrak Cascade schedules by avoiding the growing freight traffic around the yards. Rather than inferring inferior construction or problems with the equipment, you should check your facts to learn how the new Charger locomotive was built in Sacramento, CA and powered by Cummins diesels. The Spanish-built Talgo consist has a long history of running at speeds grater than 125mph; is constructed so in an accident the cars would not telescope into each other.


Until the early 1960s, it was common for passenger trains to operate over 100 mph under steam, diesel, or electric power; on jointed tracks with numerous grade crossings. High Speed rail technology is sound throughout Europe, where such trains actually use a blended infrastructure to access and egress from major depots.  Admittedly, Obama's politicized approach to high-speed rail in 2009 failed. But were it not for the well-financed lobbyists cavorting with politicians eager for campaign funding, and NIMBYs looking out to just protect their own cul de sac neighborhood, we would be enjoying the benefits of high speed rail today, instead of continuing to fight the lobbyists in California, Texas, and Florida.


The industry you represent would be wise to embrace higher-speed and high-speed rail, as they offer to be major construction projects to benefit your members. Also, you should not side-step the reality that the public trough pays for the construction and maintenance of your roads and bridges, as if we ever saw a snowplow on the interstate operated by a road construction company. And before you lambast railroading, alleging unproven falsehoods against the BNSF and Amtrak, perhaps you should take a trip down memory lane to remember the recent Atlanta interstate construction failure; the I-35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis; the stupendous cost overruns of the "Big Dig" tunnel in Boston. 


Perhaps if you understood why Warren Buffett purchased the BNSF Railway, you would gain a greater respect for railroading--how our Class 1 freight lines compete against the heavily subsided roads used by private truck firms (e.g., dedicated highway fund; interstate construction/maintenance); the heavily subsidized inland waterways utilized by private barge firms; and everyday, railroads win the battle for timely, cost efficient freight movement. Also, how many states are now actively working with Amtrak to expand current corridors (e.g., Washington), or expand new routes to serve regional needs (e.g., California), while competing against the heavily subsidized private airlines-airports, air traffic control system, dedicated air fund, and air facility tax; and heavily subsidized private bus firms (dedicated highway fund; free interstates).


Remembering how the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago had to be re-built so soon after its initial completion due to serious flaws in construction materials, you are certainly not in any position to imply negligence in the design or operation of the Washington-state passenger rail service operated by Amtrak.


Thank You

Marketing Rail Ltd

M.E. Singer

Bill Wilson
Bill Wilson
Bill Wilson

Bill Wilson is the editorial director of ROADS & BRIDGES magazine and has been covering the industry since 1999. He has won seven Robert F. Boger Awards for editorial excellence, including three in 2011. He also was the creator of the Top 10, Contractor's Choice Awards and Recycling Awards platforms, as well as ROADS & BRIDGES Live.

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