Joplin, Mont. — An Amtrak train derailed in rural Montana over the weekend was going under the speed limit of about 75 mph when it slowly veered off the track along the curve, killing three people And possibly evicting passengers, federal investigators said Monday.
National Transportation Safety Board vice president Bruce Landsberg said investigators did not know the cause of the crash, but they were studying video from the train and another locomotive that ran on the same track an hour earlier.
“We have experts who are studying the camera’s footage frames to make sure that’s what the engineer saw — or might not have seen,” Landsberg said.
The train derailed before a switch in the line, where one set of tracks was turned into two, on a section of track that had been inspected just two days earlier, he said.
The Empire Builder on the west side was traveling from Chicago to Seattle when it veered off the tracks on Saturday afternoon near Joplin, a city of about 200. The train carrying 141 passengers and 16 crew members had two locomotives and 10 cars, eight of which derailed. Some tipping on their sides.
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When asked about the timber ties seen along the tracks, and whether there had been recent maintenance on that section, Landsberg did not answer directly.
“That will be one of the questions we are looking at,” he said. “Maintenance will be a really big concern for us. We don’t know, at this point, what really happened, was it a track issue, was it a mechanical problem with the train. So it’s all open.”
The preliminary report on the derailment is expected within 30 days, he said.
Investigators will look at “everything” including the switches, wheels, axles and suspension systems, as well as track geometry and condition, said Steven Dietmeier, a rail advisor and former senior Federal Railroad Administration official. He said a switch like the Joplin would be controlled by the BNSF control center in Fort Worth, Texas.
Dietmeier said that sometimes rail lines can be deformed by heat, causing buckles in the tracks called sun kinks. This was the cause of a derailment in northern Montana in August 1988, when an Empire Builder train derailed about 170 miles east in Saco, Montana.
The NTSB concluded that an inspection failed to spot a problem in the track, and officials warned not to slow down trains on that section. The crew noticed that the track had shifted, but the train was moving at full speed and could not stop before the derailment.
Temperatures near Joplin hit an all-time high in the 80s on Saturday, according to the National Weather Service.
Russ Quimby, a former rail accident investigator for the NTSB, said heat is the most likely explanation. He is convinced because the engines in front did not derail, but the eight lighter coach cars behind him did.
“It’s also all the marks of a track buckle,” Quimby said. “Sometimes a locomotive that is heavy will make it through “a buckled track, but the cars that follow it will not. You saw that in this accident,” he said.
Quimby said the switch seems less likely to malfunction, as he believes the switch may have been inspected when the track was checked in the area last week.
Another possibility was a malfunction in the rails, said David Clark, a railroad safety expert, director of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Tennessee. He added that routine testing does not always catch such problems.
Speed was not a likely factor because trains on that line have systems that prevent excessive speed and collisions, which seem to be working in this case, Clark said.
“Did the switch play some role? Maybe the front of the train hit the switch and it started fishing and that train back flipped,” Clarke said.
The site of the derailment is about 150 miles northeast of Helena, Montana, and about 30 miles from the Canadian border. The tracks lead through vast, golden-brown wheat fields that were recently cut and roughly parallel to US Highway 2.
Alan Zarembski, director of the University of Delaware’s Railway Engineering and Safety Program, said he did not want to speculate, but suspected it stemmed from a problem with the tracks, train equipment, or both.
Zerembski said the railway has “virtually eliminated” large-scale derailments caused by human error following the implementation of a nationwide system designed to stop trains before an accident.
The derailment comes as Congress Works towards final passage of $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package That includes $66 billion to improve Amtrak service. That’s less than the $80 billion that President Joe Biden — who famously rode Amtrak from Delaware to Washington during his time in the Senate — originally sought, but since Amtrak’s founding 50 years ago. It will be the largest federal investment in passenger rail service.
The largest portion of the funds will go towards repair and improvement of the congested 457-mile-long Northeast Corridor of rail service, as well as intercity routes with high passenger traffic. About $16 billion is aimed at building Amtrak’s national service to broaden America, especially in rural areas.
Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn said the company was working with the NTSB, the Federal Railroad Administration and local law enforcement and shared its “sense of urgency” to determine what happened in Montana.