Could Amtrak catastrophe happen here? It almost did, leaving some riders scared and angry

Could last Monday’s Amtrak train crash in Washington happen here? It nearly did, a year ago this month.

The spectacular crash near Olympia this week that left at least three dead and dozens injured is eerily reminiscent of a dramatic near derailment outside Davis last December that injured five people, prompted Amtrak to discipline several employees and caused passengers and local officials to criticize Amtrak for lack of transparency about safety procedures.

In that case, an apparently distracted Amtrak engineer allowed a Capitol Corridor service train to run through a track switch at nearly double the allowable speed – 78 mph in a 40 mph zone – causing the train cars to lurch violently back and forth, sending people, coffees and laptops flying. A crew member told passengers she thought the train was going to “eat dirt.” Passengers said the train tilted so steeply they could see the ground outside the window rushing at them.

Federal investigators this week said the Cascades passenger train in Washington also was going too fast, 80 miles per hour on a 30 mph curve, sending train cars tumbling onto a freeway. Officials said they are looking into whether the engineer was distracted.

Several passengers who were on the Davis train expressed anger this week at news of the Cascades crash, one saying it suggests that Amtrak did not learn its lesson from the near miss here last year.

The accident, which left train cars dangling from a highway bridge, also has prompted questions about when Amtrak and other rail agencies finally will finish installing a long-delayed computerized train control system – called Positive Train Control, or PTC – that rail experts say is designed to prevent such incidents.

Heather Hudson, who was aboard the Capitol Corridor train from Sacramento to the Bay Area when it nearly derailed last December, said the Washington passenger accounts gave her chills.

“That could have been us,” she said. “I’m angry, but I’m also scared. Didn’t Amtrak say they had learned something from our incident and ... implemented additional communication procedures for conductors and engineers? If that was true, how did this happen?”

Another rider on that Davis train, Erin Lehane, said the Washington tragedy left her feeling that, “but by the grace of God go I.”

Amtrak has declined to discuss the Davis incident, which happened on a morning commuter train headed to the Bay Area from Sacramento. The agency initially reported the train had run over “rough track.” But documents obtained by The Sacramento Bee through a federal Freedom of Information Act request show the train engineer had missed a trackside signal alerting the engineer to slow down for an upcoming switch to a parallel track just beyond the Yolo Causeway.

The engineer “lost situational awareness” and “did not recognize the action to be taken,” internal reports said, causing the train to speed through the switch. Another crew member, who was disciplined along with the engineer, appears to have failed to conduct a required radio check to confirm that the engineer had seen the signal.

Amtrak has refused to disclose the discipline it issued, or the safety changes it made, other than stating in an email to The Bee last week that it has “issued a series of rules alerts and safety advisories pertaining to specific rules and procedures associated with the incident.”

Federal officials said the Davis incident did not meet the threshold for a federal investigation. Last week’s Washington crash will likely get a much more public airing. It is being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board, which typically publishes detailed reports, conclusions and safety recommendations.

Rail safety critics say both incidents could have been avoided if Amtrak and the nation’s other passenger and freight railroads had met their original deadline two years ago for installing the computer-based PTC system.

PTC, which is based on global positioning technology, tracks where trains are, constantly feeding the computers in the locomotive cab with information about what is happening on the tracks ahead, and how fast the train should be going.

If the train approaches a track switch or curve going too fast, the PTC audibly warns the engineer to slow the train down. If the engineer does not comply within a given few minutes, the computer takes control of the train in time to bring it to a full stop before it arrives at the danger zone.

Congress initially set a 2015 deadline for implementation. That mandate was set in 2008 after 25 people were killed when a Metrolink commuter train on a wrong track near Los Angeles hit a Union Pacific freight train head-on.

The National Transportation Safety Board investigation concluded the engineer was distracted because he was texting on his cellphone. “Contributing to the accident was the lack of a positive train control system that would have stopped the Metrolink train short of the red signal and thus prevented the collision,” the NTSB wrote.​

The NTSB also recently concluded that PTC would have prevented a 2015 Amtrak crash in Philadelphia that killed eight and injured more than 200. In that incident, the engineer was distracted and allowed his train to go into a curve twice as fast as it should have.

At the request of the rail industry, federal officials have extended the PTC deadline to the end of 2018 and agreed to allow some railroads until 2020 to have the system up and running.

Railroads say PTC is costly and complicated, not the simple “plug and play” technology that some critics want to believe. It involves installing hardware in locomotives, setting up signaling stations alongside tracks, and adding communications devices in rail agency back offices that can convey messages between locomotives and trackside devices. The system also requires operators like Amtrak to collaborate with freight rail companies like Union Pacific to make sure their systems are compatible and can communicate with each other.

Rail officials also warn that PTC is not a cure-all. It can’t tell if a track ahead is broken. It also can’t stop a train from hitting a car or pedestrian crossing the tracks, nor can it do anything about a train malfunction, such as the broken axle that caused an oil train to explode in North Dakota in 2013.

An analysis in August with the Federal Railroad Administration determined that 81 percent of railroads were on track to meet the 2018 deadline to install PTC, including the major Northern California rail agencies. Those are Amtrak, which operates long-distance passenger trains as well as the local Capitol Corridor and San Joaquin services, and freight haulers Union Pacific and BNSF. Caltrans is partnering with those agencies to meet the 2018 deadline, officials said.

Amtrak, which faces proposed budget cuts from the Trump administration, has come under increasing fire for safety deficiencies.

The NTSB, in a report issued last month about a 2016 Amtrak crash in Pennsylvania, sharply criticized the rail agency’s approach to safety. The report said the crash occurred because Amtrak allowed a passenger train “to travel at maximum authorized speed on unprotected track where workers were present.” NTSB chair Robert Sumwalt, in that report, said Amtrak’s “safety culture is failing, and is primed to fail again.”

In response to that NTSB criticism, Amtrak issued a statement last month listing nine safety improvements it has taken since the Pennsylvania crash, and saying “we are on our way” to a safety environment.

Ron Goldman, a Los Angeles attorney and critic of railroad safety efforts, said Amtrak and the rail industry in general are not taking safety seriously enough. The Washington train, he said, should not have been allowed to begin operation this week on the new line without having a fully operating PTC system in place. He said he now worries that railroads will persuade the Trump administration, which has been deregulating industries, to push the deadlines back more.

“This is a bad habit, like Groundhog Day,” he said. “What do train crashes have in common? Speed and derailments. It repeats over and over.”

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak