Transit Sleuth

The Story on Amtrak Cascades Train 501 Derailment

First off, yes, I was aboard the Amtrak Train 501 in car 2, seat 4c. I had just sat down after having a breakfast burrito and speaking with several people in the bistro car. I spoke with the bistro attendant and her trainee that was with her. We talked about how great train travel is, how much better it is than flying, and we spoke with a passenger named Scott Claggett.

It was the first time Scott was taking the train on this route, which was also the first time for everybody at this hour! He usually had to fly and he was euphoric (as were most of us) at how easy and how much more comfortable it is. We discussed what I was up to, how I had my bike aboard and was bound for Portland to meet up with some friends, ride around the city, enjoy some tasty food and eventually head back on the late train that day.

I sat down and looked out the window. We whizzed by traffic over on the Interstate. We were easily doing full track speed limit of 79 mph. I could tell just from the rate we were passing the traffic on the road, but also how fast we zipped through Lakewood Sounder Station. The new tracks along this route are super smooth, solid, and stable. Then… well, back to this in a moment. First more of the events before.

First Observations, Rewinding Just a Bit

A few observations I made when boarding the train in Seattle. The train had a lead engine and a trailing engine. So no cab car. The trailing engine was one of the older engines, a Genesis, while the lead engine was one of the brand new engines that WSDOT just bought to put into service along this line. The train set itself was the standard Talgo equipment that Amtrak has used for service in the Amtrak Cascades corridor between Vancouver, British Columbia and Eugene, Oregon for decades. It was older, but still perfectly reliable set equipment. As things go, most of these train sets and cars are perfectly usable for well past 40-50 years if maintained well.

Just before boarding we were even given these inaugural trip placards. A nice little souvenir I thought. I put it on for the moment, before heading out to board the train.

Fancy. It’s always nice to have a souvenir!

We departed out of Seattle King Street Station 9 minutes late because of an issue, which it appeared was starting the lead engine. That’s the new engine. When they pulled the train out of the yard (the area just south of the train station) for boarding I suspect the Genesis engine was used and then the engineers/drivers went to the other end to start it. I shortly walked a little past my car 2 toward the new engine when I realized the train had both attached. I was curious and also excited to see how the new engine would handle the train set.

There were two Amtrak Staff, a man and a woman, talking happily near the power car (the car that manages electricity and such to the train set between the engine and the actual train set where passengers ride). I spoke to them for a minute, asking why the new engine was off, and jokingly I said, “are we just going to push the new one to Portland?” With a smile the woman responded that they were going to get it started in just a minute.

I boarded, found my seat and began unpacking my normal kit of stuff I use while on the train; laptop, cell phone for headphone use, and such. As any regular readers would know, this wasn’t my first train Amtrak Cascades trip by any means. I think it’s more around the thousandth trip or so at this point. I got my laptop, phone, headphones, etc all out and did a little web surfing. At 9 minutes after the train pulled out of the station.

Everything was very smooth, and the lead engine pulled really well and evenly. I was easily pleased with its performance from a passenger perspective. We made great time pulling into Tukwila Station, and then easily rolled up to 79mph or so on our way to Tacoma. On the way we flew by several Sounder Commuter Trains heading into Seattle. They travelling at 79mph and we traveling at 79mph gave us a fast closing speed of 158mph, which provides a slight whoosh whenever we pass.

The train slowed for the turns leading into and pulling into Tacoma. It was a smooth deceleration and we pulled into the new Tacoma Station. I had just minutes before this near Sumner grabbed a burrito and talked with the people in the Bistro, as I started this story. We’d stopped just before entering Tacoma, likely so a train could depart from our arrival track in Tacoma Station. We pulled in and waited for passenger to detrain and board.

Then we departed Tacoma. The last station this train would ever stop at.

We pulled and smoothly snaked through the turns leaving Tacoma Station and getting over onto the new Point Defiance Bypass. The tracks were super smooth, as I mentioned before. The train got up to running speed of 79mph very quickly and smoothly.

Time passed in a surreal way at this hour. With the sun just barely risen and an easy, relaxing glow along the horizon. I relaxed, snuggled in my chair and began to check email and a few other things before diving into some code I was going to work on.

Then in a matter of seconds as I looked out of the window waiting for the laptop to bring up something, I reached forward out of reaction to grab onto the seat back tray as the train lifted hard, catapulting me upward toward the luggage rack above. I hit my head hard against the luggage rack. In those milliseconds I realized we were derailing and I’d hoped we didn’t have a ravine or hill to fall down, it’d be no problem then. But the drop came and it was hard, I was tossed upwards into the luggage rack and then thrown across the seat row into the seat’s side across from me. The impact broke 4 of my transverse process pieces on my lower lumbar vertebrae. Of course, at this point I closed my eyes for a split second as I then was thrown against the floor of the car, slightly under the seats.

Here is a good photo of the vertebrae and the transverse process, which is what is broken on me in four places on my right side now! Argh!

These are the lumbar vertebrae, four of which now have my broken transverse process bones.

I held on for dear life. I got a lot of dust and dirt in my face, I spit, and closed my eyes for a moment while the car thudded, slid, banged, then dropped, slid, thudded, veered slight to an angle. I squinted just a bit to see as the car made these jarring movements. The power was off, and we hit again, but it was a complete stop this time.

WTF!?

First thought. I was hurt. But how bad. I thought, alright, what do I know. I’m hurt, but intact I think, I blew air upward trying to ensure dust wasn’t near my eyes and I reached around to clear my face. I felt blood. There was a fair amount of it on my forehead. I turned my head to both sides and pushed myself up from the floor a bit. The car seemed stable. I looked to my left and realized the ceiling was caved in and there was water that had poured in. I sniffed, I could smell just the once dormant dust, no fuel, no burning. For the immediate moment I seemed safe. I looked to my right and saw another passenger picking himself up. I heard a call for assistance from that direction, someone was hurt. I picked myself up more from the ground and could feel pain, but couldn’t determine how bad it was.

I looked myself over real quick. I wasn’t impaled, nothing seemed broken, at least at this point. I did know I was mostly suffering from blunt force trauma. I just wasn’t sure how bad. But I was up. I looked around to see where my phone was. I needed to get out, help others, and call if emergency wasn’t already called. There was another passenger to my left I realized as he came forward, stumbling just a bit, but upright. I saw they’d turned on their cell phone lights, I asked if they could “look for a white iPhone.” and I checked on the man calling for help. He’d fallen, or more likely been catapulted into the cargo racks by the floor near the front of the car. I leaned down, excruciating pain shot through my side. But I reached out and put my hand on his leg to reassure him and asked if he felt hurt (obviously, but wanted to say something to reassure). He said he was hurt. I told him, “yeah, you took a pretty hard thrashing, sit tight for a minute and we’re going to get coordinated to get out ok”.

I could see in his eyes the shock. He wasn’t entirely lucid just yet but he was starting to collect what was happening just like the rest of us. I stood, painfully, again shooting through my right side. I thought, “well, gotta ignore it, gotta get out and get people out of this. I know I’m in good shape compared to what some will be.”

For a split second I pondered what a rigid trainset (a good thing) like the Talgo would do falling. Where we all split apart in cars? I didn’t know. We could see toward the other cars, so our car 2 seemed split apart from the others. We had fallen too. The car seemed to be in a ditch or ravine of some sort. I looked out and of the window with clarity for the first time and saw the rail bridge a 30 feet or so above, which is where we should have traversed. That made sense why I’d been slammed onto the floor so many times on the way down the hill. I saw tree splinters and fragments of a few other things as I looked out.

One of the fellow passengers found my phone and handed it to me. It was intact. I wiped it off and checked that it worked still. That was good. For now though, priority, get us out and help the others get out. We were able, we needed to get to safer ground. I turned to the emergency window and pulled the release seal off of it. Pain was evident, but I got it off the window. I started to pop the window out and remembered these windows are about 60 lbs, maybe 90, whatever it is they’re heavy and awkward. I asked, “hey, the window is heavy, help me out a bit?” and one of the passengers helped me get it to the floor of the rail car and slide it between some seats. As we gathered, I grabbed my back pack and stowed my laptop, which I’d seen right on a seat. It was filthy, but looked intact.

Information Backtrack

As I’ve read articles and seen pictures of the incident, I saw some pictures of car 2! Chris Scholls, who I assume was one of the passengers I was working with to help us all get out. Here’s one of his photos he took, which happens to be I believe my seat and the wrecked seat behind me. The caved in roof there, which I realize later after looking at aerial photos is from one of the other cars (I suspect one of the bistro/table cars) that came to rest against our car’s roof, crushing it in like this.

The Railcar I was Inside of.

NOTE to Chris: Hey, thanks for helping me out and the others, and for finding my phone and handing it to me. Hope it’s ok I’ve posted your pictures here, if not, lemme know and I’ll fix. Again, thanks! Also, more on Chris’s observations here, he also helped the man tossed into the corner baggage. He’d gone over as I tried to get the emergency window off.

I slung the backpack on. All of us including the man who’d been thrown to the floor into the baggage compartment in the front of the car, were standing, mostly. The man who’d been thrown in the corner had immediately started to climb out the window but couldn’t get footing. The other passengers were helping him but it was awkward. I told him, “come back in just for a moment. Let me climb out and I can spot you.” I looked to the other passengers, somewhat to verify they would look at me and seem confident in the idea. In these situations I always try to look at others to also verify I’m not more injured than I actually think I am. It’s hard to tell when you’ve been impacted like this.

They looked back at me, and I could tell as they nodded that they agreed. We weren’t really saying much, verbal communication being a bit exhausting at the moment. So the man came back in for a moment and I leaned out of the window, putting one leg over as I looked down to verify I had something, anything firm to stand on. It was mostly soft dirt and splintered and broken trees and tree limbs. Obviously, looking back, it was disturbed ground as the engine had tore through this area before the car came to a stop here and tilled the dirt thoroughly.

I was able to get a slight step on a tree branch or trunk or sorts. I looked around a bit more before putting full weight on it to ensure I was going to lose it and stumble further downward. We were after all still about 10 feet above where ever the next car was in front of us. In those few second I observed that a pickup truck had the front right fascia smashed in front of us in the ditch too, and car 1 of the train had crushed into it. I couldn’t even imagine how that had occurred, we were all clearly off the highway in this ditch area.

Once I got stable I released my grip on the train car and let myself down enough to step from the tree trunks to the ground. The pain was very evident during this, my side feeling like I had stabs coming from inside my body outward. But I stood for a moment, saying, “one more second, let me get stable”. My cohort waited a second and then I looked back up to the car. The bottom of the window was now about where my head was. I reached up, left hand stabilized on the window edge. Right hand ready to help, and I reduced weight on myself where I was standing so I could stabilize more.

First the older man came down. I chuckled, as he accidentally kicked me in the chin, but it was a moment I realized if I’d noticed that I’m definitely lucid and coherent. I also finally started thinking about next steps as I helped him down. I helped the others and we all got down. I’m not sure who said anything or what, but we all seemed to decide to head up the hill, which meant going under one of the rail cars, but it seemed solidly placed. So up we went under and around the derailed mess to get to safer ground.

Pic 1: We walked up the hill, and at the top of the hill I turned and took this picture. Market my position on west side of the tracks, then displaced to take a shot from the east side.

Pic 2: I then, walked across the tracks in front of Genesis Engine 181 and took this picture. Relative same position but east side of tracks.

Another of Chris Scholls’ Pictures, of where we walk up and through to get out. Good job on thinking of snapping some photos Chris.

More of Chris’ photos and interview on the news is available here.

On the way up I also saw one of the fatalities. He was familiar and I stopped to check his pulse, but as I painfully bent down realized it was to late. He was gone. I found out why he seemed familiar later, as we had met a number of times at rail advocacy group dinners. RIP Jim Hamre! We’ll miss you good sir.

I continued walking with others from my car, while we heard screams for help elsewhere, but none of us were really in the condition to help. So we continued up the hill to see if we could find others to assist by directing to the screams. We made it to the top of the hill and I took the two quick pictures above (pic 1, pic 2). I saw another severely injured person, I went to help, but another person that wasn’t as beat up came up and started helping him. I looked around and decided I couldn’t take any immediate actions to help, so quickly called my wife, father, and mother. I wanted to them to know I was ok before the TV News bombardment and all that began.

After that I walked among others who had gathered, checking if anyone needed help. After about a minute MPs (Military Police) from the nearby based arrived and I approached immediately to give what SITREP I could. Reporting the screaming from the flipped car near our car 2, the severely injured and others. They immediately leaped into action and linked up with the emergency response down the hill putting together a triage area and starting to coordinate command.

Everybody getting there onsite, and as I’ve learned, even more from the traffic in the street leaped into action almost immediately, until more emergency response could arrive. I also met Beverly and Charlie Heebner then, and assisted them down, then back around to appropriate positions to be taken away via emergency response. Beverly was a real trooper, in spite of her injuries, she’d taken two sticks and fashioned them as temporary canes to walk about. Charlie, stood with her and assisted. I really merely was there as extra assistance for a bit. They’re real troopers, and I saw them interviewed later on TV (at 1:19 in the video in this article/video on ABC News).

At this time I walked the track, from the Genesis engine (parts of it are seen in the pictures above, it was the trailing engine, number 181). I walked about 200 feet, maybe a bit further. I was looking for damage, anything that I could discern and report that may have been the cause or reason for this derailment. Mainly I was curious, but if anything popped up or I could help I wanted to make sure I could. I was also just exhausted, but with my injuries, I couldn’t really sit down.

Eventually I, per suggestion from fire response, headed down to triage myself. I could do no more and it was of no use for me to stay where I or others were on the hill. Only severely injured should stay so they could wait for ambulances to come to them. Otherwise it was better to displace to triage where we could organize and be taken to a more appropriate location.

Looking back at the train from the triage area. Emergency responders clearly working and handling the tactical logistics of getting people out of the train, and keeping people safe in the situation unfolding.

When I walked up I immediately saw Scott Claggett. We started talking about the incident and our personal experiences of this horror show. Albeit our exhaustion, and the horror of it, we discussed how we would indeed be back on the train again. It beats flying, and is – in spite of this incident – still safer than taking a bus or driving.

I spoke to a number of people, many of who, if you’ve been watching the news, have been all over the news. I spoke to some reporters but I was honestly done. I knew I needed to get checked out. I was standing upright, I’d been helping, but I was in some serious pain and knew I’d gotten beaten up pretty bad by being thrown around.

I stood and waited with the conductor of the train. The conductor is the person, if you aren’t aware of how Amtrak passenger trains work, the person that generally is in charge of the overall train. Not who drives, but sits among the bistro usually and helps organize passengers on and off, makes sure tickets are collected and insures people don’t miss their stops. All of that kind of thing.

On this day the conductor made the first emergency call to dispatch, and got emergency on its way. When I talked to him, he was coordinating with the rest of the team on the train to coordinate injured with the emergency staff. He was also a bit beat up, but in spite of that doing his job and getting information out and coordinating as needed. Eventually we both took an ambulance ride, once the higher priority injured were taken away, off to St Peter in Olympia.

Upon arrival to the hospital, I registered in the ER but requested they put me back of the queue. I suppose they did, but even then, they got everybody in and cared for quickly. I got a temporary bed to get checked out and be brought in for x-ray and CT scan. One that was done I waited.

Eventually a nurse and then the doctor came to report the news. Which was bad news but mostly good news. The x-ray showed nothing but the CT scan showed I had broken what I’d mentioned before, the transverse process. It hurt like hell too and I had swelling and bruising. The good news, simply was, eventually I’d recover fully.

For the most part, my ordeal and hellish adventure was over.

Here are some links to other information related to the tracks & train that derailed.

Debunking and Verifying Reality vs. Trash Media and Idiot Twitterers

Let’s talk about a few other things related to this wreck and some of the news coverage. For the most part, the MSM or outlets like ABC News, NBC, and, others have been excellent a mostly been accurate. There’s a few specifics and nuances that are a little distracting, but the bulk of their coverage has been spot on. Fox has even done an ok job, but then there are the tertiary media, whatever one would call them. The mud slingers, trash, scum of humanity, who have purposely tried to push the wrong narrative, a broken and deceitful narrative out to misinform and rile up political agitators. I hate saying this but even one of Trump’s tweets, about the tax bill and infrastructure was horribly off base. He spoke of this infrastructure as old, when in reality it is new and extremely high quality. He misguided millions prospectively as well as the other horrible individuals out there trying to hurt, agitate, and push a political agenda while people are hurt, trying to help each other, or dying.

1st thing. The train was moving at 81.3 mph according to a speed recorder and last recorded GPS reading. This wasn’t extraordinarily fast for the 79mph segment of track, but where we had entered and the curve we derailed on was rated for 30mph. Which means that for a mere few seconds, maybe 10-20 seconds, braking was not applied for the 30mph turn. The track we had been on is indeed 79mph, so the idea or suggestion some might have that this was a runaway train and actually “speeding” as in, breaking the law, could be disingenuous. The train, for whatever reason, failed to brake. That is, from a perspective of physics, the culminating issue that arose.

2nd thing. The drivers on the highway that thought we were going fast would have because 79 mph trains had not particular run on this track in its history. It was effectively new track for these trains that would go this fast. So the idea they thought we were speeding, wouldn’t have been an accurate observation, except on the point leading up to where the train didn’t brake. That area however is in a valley, and the people on the road actually can’t really even see the train there. So this perception, albeit prescient of what was about to happen, was particularly an accurate perception considering it wasn’t something they’d likely be informed about anyway. No problem with their observation, but possibly a little inappropriate to take that perspective as it doesn’t add to the accuracy of what did or was happening. In a few weeks or months they’ll see 79mph trains on that corridor again, so hopefully it doesn’t trigger fear or worse, erratic behavior or actions on part of motorists trying to travel on the highway there.

3rd thing. I personally walked the track (as mentioned above) from which we came for almost 200 feet so I could personally look and see what was there. Nothing, absolutely nothing was there. No signs of track damage, structural issues, blockages, or even derailment occurring before the curve. So for the assholes out there blaming Antifa and trying to turn this into a political circus seriously just shut up and have some respect. You’re adding exactly zero and hurting many people in the process by your spurious lies, fear mongering, and trash talk – Most of the shit scum associated with the likes of Jack Proboseic, Mike Cernovich, Alex Jones, and other individuals that are routinely riling up people for pro-Trump agitation (and you could be pro-Trump, but these guys add a new realm of insanity to things) and hostile aggression toward a host of Americans (not just Antifa). I can’t warn people enough about these individuals, they are the scum that would initiate a “beer hall putsch” in a second against the American populace in favor for Trump or some similar fiat leader. They’re dangerous, uninformed (or they love the lies they spread), and generally a threat to those they agitate against and sometimes even for those they agitate for. Do note, I’m not even making this statement to be anti-Trump, just anti- these fear mongering, hate spreading, disgusting individuals that act to divide Americans with lies, misinformation, and other trash. Absolutely horrible actions they’re taking and disrespect they’re acting on.

4th Thing. Whoever misreported and didn’t confirm the false report of 6 deaths did a horrible job of spreading misinformation. There were 3 fatalities, not 6. Seriously, get your reports straight before going live with this type of information. Ugh.

5th Thing. This is one incident, keep sane and smart and don’t let the scariness of this incident make you fear train travel. It is still dramatically safer than automobile travel, safer than bus travel, and generally safer than most modes. The only mode option that beats it out is flying. So don’t gimme some mess about how scary it is, suck up those fears, and try to make smart decisions that are actually based in legitimate data for yourself instead of trigger happy FUD racketing.

6th Thing. In a knock on Trump’s hypocrisy. He’s a liar, simple as that, his budget will cut Amtrak, cut infrastructure, cut infrastructure not just for passenger service but for all modes (i.e. expect those highways to keep decaying too). Don’t believe the nonsense in his tweets. Just know that this is completely unrelated to his budget, will only be hurt, and will only cause more collapse of America to maintain, modernize, and improve transportation infrastructure in the United States.

7th Thing. Seat belts would have likely dramatically reduced actual injuries. Albeit trains should have them, they don’t. Also, even though it is perfectly safe to move around on a train, in wrecks like this people thrown from the train are usually the people who are killed. In this case I can attest to the fact that the people who did die, were in motion or transition while the train tore apart, and got thrown from the train. Resulting in their unfortunate deaths. If we want to basically eliminate these causes, minimize standing in between cars and maximize the time passenger spend in seat, safely seated and preferably belted. Again, I’d even have had no injuries but maybe being shaken strongly about if I’d been able to actually stay in my seat, but instead was thrown and thrashed harshly around. Maybe for future trips I’ll be bringing my own seat belt?

8th Thing. The nonsense the Lakewood mayor was complaining about in wasn’t even related to this incident. He was complaining that people wouldn’t obey the crossing gates and related things. Which seriously, people need to pay attention to crossing gates PERIOD, what is the deal with being idiots around crossing gates? Just chill out and don’t go blowing through them. They’re dropped on BOTH sides when a train is coming and there are NOT many crossings anyway. The entire line has sections like this, Lakewood isn’t a special snowflake. Anyway, this is something again, that has been offered by some news sources and a foreshadowing but is really more of an ill-placed anti-passenger rail complaint by the mayor. I could go on, but just suffice it to say, this is inappropriately related to this incident and negligent reporting at best, and outright dangerous in other ways.