Amtrak lawsuit over 2017 derailment highlights rail with safety & regulatory issues

In September 2019, a federal jury sided with three victims of a 2017 Amtrak derailment in DuPont, Washington, splitting $17 million between three plaintiffs injured in the accident. The law firm which represented the plaintiffs also represents several dozen more who have also filed suit against Amtrak for the 2017 accident.

At the outset of the trial, the company’s attorney said Amtrak accepted that its actions played a role in the disaster, and that jurors were there to decide on compensation, not guilt.

Train 501 was traveling at 78 mph when it reached a 30-mph curve in the tracks. It derailed, killing three passengers and injuring 57 other riders. Eight bystanders were injured when the derailed train cars plummeted from an overpass onto Interstate 5.

An NTSB report described the 2017 Amtrak accident as “completely avoidable” and caused by issues which have yet to be fixed

In a detailed 153-page report, National Transportation Safety Board investigators determined that the accident was the result of a combination of human error and widespread negligence on the part of Amtrak,  the Washington State Department of Transportation, the Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority, and even the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).

The NTSB describes a wide range of regulatory and technological failures in the run-up to the deadly accident:

  • The FRA failed to implement years of recommended technological enhancements or regulatory changes, resulting in a failure to address safety issues, and limiting the information that could be available to accident investigators.
  • The Washington State DOT and the Central Puget Sound RTA did not exercise their regulatory authority, resulting in a failure to identify and address safety hazards along the train’s route by implementing regulatory and technological solutions.
  • Amtrak’s failure to provide adequate training to the train’s engineers resulted in personnel being unprepared to operate the Charger locomotive involved in the accident, and lacking critical knowledge of the physical particulars of the new train route.

Less than a month before the December 2017 derailment, NTSB chairman Robert L. Sumwalt said “Amtrak’s safety culture is failing, and is primed to fail again, until and unless Amtrak changes the way it practices safety management.” This was in the wake of another investigation into a fatal April 2016 derailment in which Amtrak Train 89, bound from Philadelphia to Washington D.C., crashed into a backhoe, killing the operator and a track supervisor, and injuring 39 others.

In addition to widespread regulatory failures, the NTSB discovered that the 2017 derailment occurred on track where positive train control (PTC) technology had been installed. However, the system was not yet functional before the accident, as it was undergoing final testing and verification. The NTSB believes that had this technology been fully operational, it would have detected the train’s velocity well before entering the curve, and forced it to decelerate.

Valuable railroad safety technology, including PTC, has been mandated by Congress or proposed by the NTSB in the past

Amtrak has been pushing to implement safety technology and new regulations, but efforts industry-wide are varied, and not always consistent.

In 2008, two trains collided head-on in Los Angeles as they traveled through the city’s Chatsworth district. Twenty-five people were killed in the crash, the largest railway accident in the US since 1993’s Big Bayou Canot derailment.

In the aftermath, the NTSB recommended the implementation of video and audio recording systems for all locomotive and train operations cabs, which it later criticized the FRA for failing to accomplish prior to the 2017 Amtrak derailment. In addition, the board also reiterated its calls for positive train control systems to be implemented on US railways, which it first recommended back in 1990.

Spurred by the Chatsworth incident, Congress enacted the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008. The act included provisions to limit the hours freight rail crews can clock each month, and also directed the Department of Transportation to set hourly limits for passenger train crews. Most notably, the act established funding for the development and implementation of PTC.

Despite the urging of Congress, federal regulators and railway operators have been slow to implement positive train control.

Positive train control technology was originally slated to be on all main line railways by 2015, but most operators were nowhere near meeting this deadline. To accommodate the lag in implementation, extensions were made for 2018, and again for 2020.

Detractors of PTC systems have cited the high cost of implementation, and the limited economic justification for it. The cost of deploying PTC to US railways was estimated to be anywhere from $6.7 billion to $22.5 billion. Between 1987 and 2007, before Chatsworth, only two major railway accidents that could have been prevented by PTC were recorded.

Further complicating the deployment of PTC is the fact that multiple railway operators own their own track, while also sharing track owned by other operators. Amtrak has implemented the technology on two-thirds of its own railways. However, the delays by other operators mean that Amtrak trains potentially cross onto shared track that may not be up to the same safety standards.

The FRA has been criticized by Congress for issuing exemptions to railway operators that have limited the deployment of PTC. Democrats on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, and the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials, sent a warning letter to the FRA in 2018. In it, they state that the exemptions issued by the FRA were never authorized by Congress.

Amtrak has been at the center of dozens of derailments and collisions for decades

Since its formation in 1971, Amtrak’s safety record has come under question after multiple high-profile train collisions and derailments.

  • In December 1990, an Amtrak passenger train derailed after entering a speed-restricted curve at high-speed. The train collided with a Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority commuter train, injuring 453 people and causing $14 million dollars in damage. The NTSB determined that Amtrak was completely at fault for the accident, and it was discovered that the senior engineer in control of the train had such a poor safety record, they were banned from operating trains on another route.
  • The deadliest accident in Amtrak history was 1993’s Big Bayou Canot rail accident. A bridge crossing over a waterway was struck by a barge that mistakenly navigated down the wrong course, disconnecting one end of the tracks from the other. The train approached the crossing at speed in the middle of the night, having never received any warnings that the track was displaced, and plunged into the water. 47 people were killed in the accident by a combination of drowning, and diesel fuel fires that started after the crash, and 103 more were injured.
  • Amtrak was sued by one of their own employees in the wake of a deadly 1996 train collision between an Amtrak passenger train, and a commuter train operated by the Maryland Area Regional Commuter (MARC) Train Service. Though MARC was declared fully responsible for the accident that killed 11 people and injured 26, the Amtrak employee claimed that his employer, the owner of the track where the accident occurred, and state of Maryland, were responsible for a lack of warning signals that could have prevented the crash.
  • Amtrak’s Silver Star passenger train collided with an empty Autorack train owned by CSX Transportation in February 2018 in Cayce, South Carolina. Two crew members were killed, and 116 people were injured after multiple cars derailed. After investigating the accident, the NTSB determined that Amtrak and CSX’s failures to mitigate the risks of track switching operations, coupled with a conductor’s errors, were the causes for the crash.

The 2017 DuPont derailment is only one in string of accidents that have plagued Amtrak and rail operators across the United States. The recent lawsuits show that despite efforts to improve train safety, there remains much work to be done. The cost of safety, and failing to maintain it, has proven to be quite high.

This blog is not meant to dispense legal advice and is not a comprehensive review of the facts, the law, this topic or cases related to the topic.

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