The Public Eye

Why did Sacramento commuter train suddenly jolt? Amtrak isn’t saying

The Amtrak Capitol Corridor passenger train rolls through downtown Dixon on Nov. 25, 2014. Amtrak officials have declined to discuss why a Capitol Corridor passenger train suddenly jolted violently last month, injuring one passenger and causing others to fear it would derail.
The Amtrak Capitol Corridor passenger train rolls through downtown Dixon on Nov. 25, 2014. Amtrak officials have declined to discuss why a Capitol Corridor passenger train suddenly jolted violently last month, injuring one passenger and causing others to fear it would derail. Sacramento Bee file

More than six weeks after a Sacramento passenger train jolted violently, injuring one passenger and causing others to fear it would derail, Amtrak officials still have not disclosed what happened and whether they have implemented safety changes.

Amtrak officials have declined several Sacramento Bee requests in recent weeks to discuss the Dec. 7 incident involving a Capitol Corridor train, saying it was under review and that “there is nothing more to add until this process is completed.”

Notably, though, a Capitol Corridor executive sent an internal email to his board two days after the incident saying the investigation was expected to be finished in about a week.

The train was just east of Davis, headed to the Bay Area from Sacramento with commuters aboard just after 7 a.m., when passengers said it lurched to one side, then the other, rocking several times before righting itself. A 65-year-old passenger suffered a broken thumb. There were several other undisclosed minor injuries.

Several passengers looking out the window said it appeared the incident was caused by the train switching tracks at a high speed, as if the train operators were unaware that the track switch was open. Several passengers said the train tilted so far, they thought it would derail. One said a crew member said she also thought the train was going to “eat dirt.”

“I remember thinking, ‘Are we going down? Am I going to survive this?’ ” passenger Heather Hudson said. Hudson said she contacted Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration, asking what happened, but hasn’t gotten an explanation. An Amtrak representative, however, offered her a free one-month ride voucher, she said.

Federal Railroad Administration officials have declined several Bee requests for comment on the incident, most recently on Jan. 5 when an FRA spokeswoman emailed that the incident was still under review, and that the FRA would post its findings on its website on March 1.

The Bee submitted a Freedom of Information Act request two weeks ago to Amtrak for documents and internal communications related to the incident, but has not received any documents.

Capitol Corridor train officials also have declined to discuss the incident, though the organization did respond to a Sacramento Bee Public Records Act request for internal emails about the incident. In one of those emails, Capitol Corridor executive David Kutrosky told Amtrak officials in December that he was not returning Bee phone calls “as I believe Amtrak should respond to these questions.”

Amtrak is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the Capitol Corridor line between Sacramento and the Bay Area. The line is overseen by the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, a coalition of local cities and transit agencies. Union Pacific owns the tracks on which the trains run.

The only correspondence with train riders occurred the morning of the incident, when Capitol Corridor officials sent out a service advisory, noting that trains throughout the system were being delayed due to “a track problem.” Union Pacific later inspected the line and said there was no problem with the tracks.

Capitol Corridor officials also alerted their board members to the incident, in an email two days later, after The Bee wrote a story. In that email, Kutrosky said a train had experienced “erratic movement.” He included a link to a Bee article about the incident, but provided no information about what the cause might be.

In the Dec. 9 email, Kutrosky wrote that the federal investigation of the incident was expected to be completed “by next week,” which would have been the week of Dec. 12.

Kutrosky also told board members in that email that he has called on Amtrak to “expedite” implementation of a computer-controlled system that can “read” the track ahead and slow or stop trains if needed to avoid derailments and other crashes.

That safety system, called Positive Train Control, was mandated by federal officials several years ago in response to a 2008 Metrolink commuter train crash near Los Angeles that killed 25 people on board. The conductor, who was one of those killed, was believed to have been text messaging on his cellphone at the time.

The PTC system is costly and complicated, and railroad companies have been slow in implementing it, missing initial federal deadlines. The current deadline for railroads to have the PTC system in operation is the end of 2018.

Several Capitol Corridor board members contacted by the Bee said they know little about the Dec. 7 incident on the Sacramento commuter train. Capitol Corridor board Chairman Lucas Frerichs, a Davis City Council member, told The Bee last week that he’s waiting “very patiently” for the FRA to report back on its findings.

Matt Williams is among several passengers who have expressed frustration at the lack of information. In a recent email to The Bee, he said he was incensed that a taxpayer-subsidized entity such as Amtrak “is refusing transparency on what could have been a catastrophic incident.”

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak

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