It’s close to a miracle that a speeding Capitol Corridor train didn’t derail near Davis last Dec. 7. Amtrak’s response since the near-catastrophe, however, has gone completely off track.
Amtrak has refused to be transparent; it took persistence and a Freedom of Information Act request for The Bee’s Tony Bizjak to learn that the train engineer was going nearly twice the speed limit, causing the train to jerk violently and leading to five injuries.
It isn’t just the stonewalling that’s shameful and unacceptable. Amtrak is also failing the public and its passengers on accountability and safety.
In a six-sentence email statement to The Bee on Monday, the railroad didn’t even acknowledge the speeding, instead citing “rough track conditions.” It did say that its investigation blamed the incident on “human error” and that the train crew’s performance had “been addressed in accordance with Amtrak procedures.”
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But we still don’t know what discipline was handed out to crew members who clearly made major mistakes. Nor do we know what additional operational safeguards, if any, have been put in place to prevent a repeat. Asked about those issues Tuesday, Amtrak resent the statement with one addition: that safety “is our number one priority.”
What we do know through the documents obtained by The Bee is how perilously close the No. 527 train may have come to a deadly derailment. The engineer took the train at 78 mph through a track switch with a 40 mph speed limit. The engineer “lost situational awareness” and “did not recognize the action to be taken,” says the Amtrak incident report, which also blamed inadequate supervision and communication.
As the train’s five cars hit the switch, they lurched back and forth. “I could see the café car leaning about 40 degrees to the right,” one crew member wrote in a statement. “I shouted everyone ‘sit down,’ then our car hit and rocked hard to the right then back to the left hard. People and objects were tossed about.”
The Federal Railroad Administration looked into the incident, but because it wasn’t more serious did not do a full investigation.
The daily Capitol Corridor trains are run by Amtrak but overseen by a board of local officials along the route. The board should demand more information.
It’s essential that Amtrak learned the right lessons from this scary incident. As it stands now, the public can have little confidence that it did.