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NTSB Report Says Inactive Safety Tech Could Have Prevented Deadly Train Wreck

Government Accountability Office
This graphic shows the basic operation of a positive train control (PTC) system.

A preliminary federal crash report says an automatic safety braking system could have prevented last month's deadly Amtrak derailment near Tacoma, Washington.

Three people died and more than 60 were seriously injured when an Amtrak train going from Seattle to Portland on its inaugural passenger run along a new, faster route took a curve way too fast and hurtled from an overpass onto Interstate 5 below. ?

The National Transportation Safety Board preliminary report concludes that an advanced safety system called positive train control would have prevented the December 18 crash by automatically slowing the train when the locomotive engineer failed to do so.

"In this accident, PTC would have notified the engineer of train 501 about the speed reduction for the curve; if the engineer did not take appropriate action to control the train’s speed, PTC would have applied the train brakes to maintain compliance with the speed restriction and to stop the train," the NTSB investigators wrote.

Track owners and Amtrak are in the process of installing positive train control on the Cascades line, but it was not active yet. This point is also being raised in liability lawsuits filed this week against Amtrak.

In another noteworthy detail from the report, the NTSB said it has yet to interview the 55-year-old locomotive engineer or the conductor-in-training with him in the cab because of their serious injuries.

The Washington State Department of Transportation says Amtrak service will not resume on the bypass track where last month's derailment occurred until positive train control is in place.

The NTSB today estimated the damage from the derailment at more than $40 million.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.