Why did passenger train nearly derail? Elected officials want answers

Capitol Corridor trains run daily between Sacramento and the Bay Area.
Capitol Corridor trains run daily between Sacramento and the Bay Area. Sacramento Bee file

Rail officials in Sacramento and the Bay Area are calling on Amtrak to publicly explain what safety actions – if any – it has taken after a passenger train jolted violently at high speed in December outside Davis rattling riders, including two members of the train system’s board of directors.

Amtrak so far has said almost nothing publicly about the incident, which caused five minor injuries on a Bay Area-bound Capitol Corridor commuter run out of Sacramento.

Federal documents obtained by The Sacramento Bee indicate the engineer drove the train at 78 miles per hour through a 40 mph track switch, failing to acknowledge a signal that warned the switch was upcoming. Amtrak has not responded to repeated Bee requests to explain why the engineer did not slow the train down and what Amtrak has done since then to guard against future similar or worse incidents.

A Capitol Corridor train system board member, who was on that train, said the experience was frightening. Robert Raburn said he was seated in the last car in the five-car train when he was suddenly slammed against the wall, then immediately thrown the other direction. “We were bouncing, and I felt it was as close to a derailment as I have ever experienced.”

He and several other Capitol Corridor board members, including Davis City Councilman Lucas Frerichs, are pushing for a more detailed explanation of the incident. The Capitol Corridor joint powers group manages the passenger train service between Sacramento and the Bay Area in cooperation with Amtrak, which operates the trains and employs the engineers and conductors.

Capitol Corridor executive David Kutrosky told The Bee this week he has requested that Amtrak representatives come to the Capitol Corridor board meeting in June to discuss the incident but had not yet gotten word if Amtrak will do that.

Amtrak issued a brief written statement in March saying the “train crew’s performance has been addressed in accordance with Amtrak procedures.” Amtrak spokeswoman Vernae Graham wrote in an email at the time that that was Amtrak’s “final statement” about the incident.

Documents obtained through a federal Freedom of Information Act request showed that Amtrak, internally, noted that the engineer had “lost situational awareness.” Amtrak also faulted a second train crew member who, according to an incident report, “failed to recognize that it was their responsibility to take action when (redacted) did not.”

Crew members, in written statements, described the event. “As we (crossed over) from (track one to two), I heard a loud bang,” one crew member wrote. “I could see the café car leaning about 40 degrees to the right. 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 worst injury appeared to be a woman with a broken thumb. That woman told The Bee she was standing in the cafe car; a man threw his arms around her to keep her from sprawling.

The train remained on the tracks and continued on to Martinez, where the crew was relieved of duty, taken for drug and alcohol testing, and the train taken out of service. Raburn, the Capitol Corridor director on that train, said he’d like Amtrak to tell him why the train continued several more stops before being decommissioned.

Frerichs, Capitol Corridor board chair, said board members have important questions.

“We want a recap, we want to make sure we are getting a full rundown and also, more than anything, assurances of how we avoid this type of incident in the future,” Frerichs said. “That is the real issue for us. As a Capitol Corridor board, our chief concern is public safety.”

Board director Raburn echoed that. “If there is something systematic that is wrong, I want to get to the root cause of that.”

Several passengers said they felt the train could have derailed and are angered that Amtrak has so far chosen not to speak publicly about the incident.

Federal rail officials have ordered major freight and passenger rail companies to implement positive train control, a computer and GPS-based system that can take control of a train and stop it if the engineer fails to take the appropriate actions. Progress on that effort has been slow, however.

Rail officials said PTC would have brought the December Capitol Corridor train to a stop before it hit the switch. “It’s needed,” Frerichs said.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak