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NTSB says train was going more than twice speed limit when it wrecked

An Amtrak train derailed onto Interstate 5 in Dupont, Wash., on Dec. 18, 2017. Multiple people were killed and more than 75 were taken to local hospitals after an Amtrak train derailed from a highway overpass on Monday morning, according to local authorities. (Ruth Fremson/The New York Times Copyright 2017)

The National Transportation Safety Board says the train that derailed Monday as it made its way from Seattle to Portland was going more that twice the posted speed limit when it jumped the tracks on a bridge over a busy interstate highway.

"Preliminary indications are that the train was traveling 80 miles per hour in a 30-mile per hour track," said NTSB member Bella Dinh-Zarr.

At least three people where killed and more than 100 injured when one of two engines and 12 cars derailed, many of them tumbling onto a busy interstate highway below.

Cranes moved in to clear the damaged cars from Interstate 5, one of the busiest highways on the West Coast, which remained closed during Tuesday's morning commute.

NTSB officials said that investigators have not yet spoken with the train crew and they were uncertain whether the crew was familiar with the speed limits in the zone. The train was making its inaugural run on a 14.5 mile stretch of recently refurbished track.

"We will be looking at all areas related to this accident," Dinh-Zarr said. "Our mission is not just to understand what happened, but why that happened, and to recommend changes so that we can prevent another tragedy from happening again."

Amtrak was running what railroaders call a push-pull operation, with a locomotive at either end of the 12-passenger cars. Dinh-Zarr said the data recorder had been retrieved from the engine that was at the trail end of the train.

The Washington State Department of Transportation said the southbound lanes on I-5 would remain closed at least through the morning commute and urged commuters to seek alternate routes.

"We are anticipating that this work may take days, not hours," an agency statement said. Two train cars, including one that was dangling from the overpass, were removed overnight, a WSDOT spokesman said. He said other cars will remain on scene while the NTSB continues the investigation.

"These train cars are heavy and it will take time to relocate them safely," he said.

An Amtrak locomotive weighs about 200 tons, while passenger cars are about 65 tons.

Claudia Baker, another transportation spokeswoman said that until the train cars are removed, the agency won't know whether there is damage to the highway. But she said that it is a possibility that damage to the road could extend the lanes closure.

The wreck left locomotives and rail cars scattered - several of them on the highway below, one tucked under the bridge it was to cross, others beside the railroad embankment and one dangling from the bridge with an end resting on the rail car that had been in front of it.

At least five vehicles passing below on Interstate 5 - including two tractor-trailers - were heavily damaged as the rail cars from Amtrak Cascades train 501 fell from above.

There were 80 passengers, three crew members and two cafe car workers aboard the train. The 100 people police said were taken to the hospital reflected that some of the injured were traveling in vehicles on I-5.

"There are a lot of critical injuries," said Washington State Patrol spokeswoman Brooke Bova said. "This is a very complex scene."

Dinh-Zarr said the agency's team of investigators would include at least a dozen specialists in train operations, mechanics, tracks, signal systems, human performance and survival factors. The lead investigator is Ted Turpin, who also worked on the 2015 Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia and was the lead investigator for the Long Island Rail Road train crash at New York's Atlantic Terminal early this year.

Dinh-Zarr said NTSB investigators will also be assessing what crash-avoidance technology existed on the tracks or on the train and whether that technology functioned properly.

Though Amtrak trains are equipped with it, the railroad said the train was not using positive train control, a system that would have slowed it as it entered the curve. The system requires that sensors also be placed along the rail bed, and those were not scheduled to be in place until sometime next year, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation. Putting the sensors in place would be the responsibility of SoundTransit, the transit system which owns the railroad bed.

The Amtrak train was on its first run on tracks that had been rebuilt at a cost of $181 million, using a 14.5-mile bypass and avoiding a more scenic but slower passage along the coastline. The new service is said to save 10 minutes in travel time between Seattle to Portland. Officials celebrated the opening of the Tacoma station along the rebuilt route with a ribbon cutting Friday.

The new Amtrak Cascades service is part of an expansion of Amtrak intercity passenger rail service that includes station upgrades and expansions and the addition of new locomotives. Washington and Oregon jointly operate the Amtrak Cascades intercity passenger service.

Author information: Luz Lazo writes about transportation and development. Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.