The cause of the derailment of the Amtrak train remains unclear


Steve Glaser was in sleeping car # 730 on Saturday, watching “The Great British Baking Show” on his cell phone and anxiously awaiting the moment his Amtrak train left the flat plain of central Montana for the high mountain passes of the. Glacier National Park, when the train shook violently. Instantly, he realized he had derailed.

If he stays straight, he said to himself, I’m fine.

His car did, but others tipped over, sending passengers flying through the cars. When the train, which also included two locomotives, stopped, Mr. Glaser, 66, and another passenger worked together to open a window. He grabbed his briefcase and went out to find wagons strewn along the tracks and other injured passengers.

Eight of 10 passenger cars had blown off the tracks when the train carrying 145 passengers and 13 crew derailed near Joplin, MT, killing three people and injuring dozens more. As of Sunday afternoon, five people from the crash were still hospitalized at Benefis Health System in Great Falls, all in stable condition.

Authorities have not released any information about what they believe derailed the train as it traversed an apparently flat and straight section of the road. The wreckage is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.

“We share the sense of urgency to understand why the accident happened; However, until the investigation is complete, we will not comment further on the accident itself, ”said William J. Flynn, chief executive of Amtrak, in a statement on Sunday. “The NTSB will identify the cause (s) of this accident, and Amtrak is committed to taking appropriate action to prevent a similar accident in the future. “

More often than not, a derailment is caused by speeding in a corner, as has been the case in fatal Amtrak crashes in Washington and Philadelphia in recent years. Since these accidents, Amtrak has installed a braking system that prevents trains from exceeding certain speeds and applies the brakes to prevent collisions with other trains or railway equipment.

“The main cause of derailments and accidents is something called human factors,” said Allan Zarembski, director of the Railroad Engineering and Safety program at the University of Delaware.

But in this case, he said, the human factors that could cause an accident like this did not appear to be present. “More than likely, something broke.”

With the exception of human error, he said, most wreckage is caused by faulty equipment – perhaps a wheel or axle, or the track itself.

The train derailed on tracks owned and maintained by BNSF Railway Company, a freight railroad. Most of Amtrak’s national network operates on track owned by freight railways, which means Amtrak is not responsible for track maintenance. BNSF spokesman Matt Brown said on Sunday that the section of track where the train derailed was last inspected on September 23.

Some passengers reported that the train ride was bumpy for several miles, which could signal a problem with the train’s suspension system. But even if a train crew takes note of a problem like this, its source could be difficult to identify as the train travels between towns, Zarembski said.

If the turbulence were more sudden, Saturday’s heat could also be to blame, said Russell Quimby, retired National Transportation Safety Board accident investigator.

Mr Quimby said he suspected the train may have struck a section of the track that had buckled due to overheating.

“When this happens, the train cannot negotiate that tight little change in the curvature of the track, and it will go over the rail and derail and fall sideways like you see in the photos,” he said. declared.

At the time of the accident, the temperature in Joplin peaked at 84 degrees. The tracks are generally about 20 to 30 degrees warmer than the temperature outside, Quimby said, which “could be well above” what the tracks were designed for.

In 1988, an Amtrak train taking the same route derailed in Saco, Mont., after hitting a loop of track.

“It’s a very rare event,” he said. “We haven’t had one for over 30 years in this area.

It is not known if the train derailed during a lane change, but if the switch was misaligned, that could also be the cause, Mr Quimby said.

After the sinking, hospitals across the state took in passengers, some of whom had suffered broken ribs and collarbones. Aubrey Green, 88, who was returning to Portland after a visit to Havre, MT, said the car he was driving in had fallen onto its side and three women “flew over me.”

After the crash, Glaser said “the community has taken over.”

Sarah Robbin, disaster emergency services coordinator for Liberty County, Montana, one of the state’s most rural counties, had spent much of her time over the past few years in imagine a scenario like this in his head and plan the best way to respond.

In each of the small towns that dot Highway 2, which runs through northern Montana along the railroad tracks, there are only a few hundred to a few thousand people. The nearest main hospital is a short drive away. Emergency services are scarce.

“We are a small county,” she said, adding that anything like Saturday’s crash “would immediately overwhelm us. Being small and rural, relying on your neighbors is extremely important.

In the town of Chester, about 7 to 8 miles west of the derailment, a siren system alerts the approximately 1,000 residents of any significant news. A ringtone signals a town meeting. Two, an ambulance. Three, a call to fire. And four, “a terrible disaster,” said Jesse Anderson, owner of MX Motel, a 20-room stopover that typically caters to anglers, construction workers and hunters.

When Mr. Anderson heard four sirens yesterday, he assumed it was a mistake. But then he saw fire trucks crossing the main street at 40 km / h.

“We had no idea it would be something of this magnitude,” he said.

Emergency responders from at least seven counties rushed to help. As the only motel 50 miles east or west, Mr. Anderson has been called upon to accommodate some of the passengers. He offered his available rooms for free.

Families from a nearby Hutterite colony brought food for the passengers while they waited for rides and accommodation in the school gymnasium.

Traumatized by the sinking, some passengers said they would never board a train again.

Hedie Kachorek, 71, and her husband, Robert, have been riding trains together for decades. They were on their way to reunite with their grandson in Seattle when the journey started to get tough. After smooth rails through Illinois and Wisconsin it started to get uncomfortably bumpy.

As the couple discussed getting off the train early at the Shelby stop, it went off the rails.

Patrick McGeehan contributed reporting.