NTSB Looking at Talgo Safety

The National Transportation Safety Board probe into the December 2017 derailment of an Amtrak Cascades train that killed three and injured more than 60 is focusing on the safety of the Talgo equipment involved in the incident.

“Now that we have evidence of how the Talgo trainset performs in a crash, does the [Federal Railroad Administration] have any concerns that would cause you to re-examine your decision to grandfather this equipment?” NTSB investigator Michael Hiller asked an FRA during a recent hearing.

In response, the FRA’s Gary Fairbanks said, “I didn’t see anything as the way the cars performed that would cause us to go back and reconsider the grandfathering petition because the items that were covered in the grandfathering petition performed adequately.”

The Talgo equipment involved in the derailment had been operating under a FRA waiver.

During the hearings, the NTSB also zeroed in on the training of Amtrak locomotive engineers.

The derailment occurred on the first day of revenue service on the Point Defiance Bypass between Tacoma and Nisqually, Washington.

NTSB investigators are also questioning if Amtrak did enough to identify a potentially dangerous curve at DuPont, Washington, where Cascades No. 501 derailed.

At issue was whether Amtrak operating personnel received a sufficient number of familiarization trips over the route before revenue service began.

Most of the training runs were made at night to avoid interfering with Sounder commuter trains during the day.

Testimony at the NTSB hearing showed that one training run had seven people in the cab, exceeding the number considered safe by Amtrak standards.

Locomotive engineers were not only learning a new route, but a new locomotive, the SC-44 Charger.

In interviews with NTSB investigators, the engineer of Cascades No. 501 said the curve at milepost 19.8 was on his mind, but that his limited familiarity with the lines of sight from the Charger locomotive may have hindered his ability to see the wayside warning signs until it was too late.

As Cascades No. 501 entered a 30 mph curve, it was traveling at 78 mph.

Mike DeCataldo, Amtrak’s senior director for system safety and customer satisfaction, said  Amtrak will only begin a new service or route “once all safety precautions and mitigations are in place.”

DeCataldo said Amtrak will require a minimum of four round-trips over the entirety of the new route, up from the previous minimum of one, before an engineer or conductor is qualified to operate over it.

Amtrak has said it will not use the Point Defiance Bypass until positive train control train is installed, which is not expected until the end of this year.

In a related development, an Amtrak mechanic has filed a federal whistleblower complaint in connection with the Cascades derailment, saying carrier ignored his safety concerns on the day of the accident.

Michael McClure said in the complaint that he told his superiors that there was a mechanical failure in the trainset that later derailed.

“They were more primarily concerned about getting it out in time for the inaugural run than looking at the safety aspect of it,” McClure said.

He contends that the fault dealt with the train’s braking system. However, it has not been formally established if that played a part in the derailment.

McClure’s complaint alleges that Amtrak has “an ongoing pattern and practice of violating the Federal Railroad Safety Act.”

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