Kind Words for Zack and Jim

Carl Fowler wrote an eloquent comment on my recent post about the Amtrak Cascades 510 Derailment. These words he wrote about his great friends Jim Hamre & Zack Willhoite that lost their lives that day. I’ve reprinted them here in honor of those friends we lost.

Jim Hamre (age 61) and Zack Willhoite (age 35) were each others best friends and mine as well. I can’t begin to process the grief. I talked to both as recently as the Saturday before their ill-fated ride, as they were so happily driving from Tacoma to Leavenworth, WA to photograph the Amtrak Seattle–Leavenworth Christmas train. On Sunday they rode the last runs via the Point Defiance Line. Zack was thrilled to have bought the last ticket at the “old” 1984 Tacoma Amtrak station–a one way from Tacoma to Tukwilla that, of course, he never would have used–a true piece of history. And for rail advocacy their loss is incalculable.

Jim was a long-time member of the NARP/RPA Board. He was quiet, effective, wrote with such fluency and beyond all else was kind and deeply caring. Zack was beyond a computer whiz, a man who could plan bus schedules, fix computers, analyze complex problems and then have such fun driving his preserved historic Pierce Transit bus. And did Zack ever love pepperoni pizza, the Rocky Horror Picture Show and Star Wars!

Both were perfect symbols of what advocacy for balance in transportation should be. Jim was a highway engineer who deeply supported multi-modalism. Zack took the same perspective from his work in the bus side of public transport.

Through my career running tours by train all over the world I got to travel with them to places that really “got” public transport. Jim went with me all over Europe, joined by Zack in Switzerland. Together with their friend Malcolm Kenton they went last year to Inno-Trans, the great passenger rail industry biennial trade show in Berlin. Jim went with me to New Zealand, Australia, Canada and virtually everywhere in the United States.

Jim helped me as a co-tour manager on countless tours from the 1980s to my retirement in 2015, starting on BC Rail trips over the whole thousand mile line from Vancouver to Fort Nelson, B.C. He served meals, carried bags, helped set up photo lines, talked trains, history and culture with fellow riders and once assisted in finding two confused elderly passengers who got lost on a Skytrain in Vancouver. He spent hours searching station after station until they were finally located. Zack amazingly did the same thing once in Switzerland, finding a couple who had gone the wrong way on a Swiss trip, because the trains run on the left there and they got confused by boarding a train going for them the wrong way on the right-hand platform. Jim and Zack were the best in so many ways!

And that was barely the start. For NARP Jim went where-ever needed, criss-crossing the country to Board and Council meetings typically four timers or more each year. He gave over 35 years of similar effort to the Washington Association of Railroad Pasengers/All Aboard Washington For his family he could not do enough. He helped run a Thrift Store for the poor in Puyallup, WA through his church. He cared for his mother, his family and his friends. I never knew a finer person and could always count on him.

Zack had gotten married only a year ago, and like Jim helped care for his mom. His internet “handle” was Busdude1 He knew so much about not only busses, but also light rail, trams, streetcars and of course passenger trains. He had a rapier wit, but was never mean.

You could count on them both. Both men were funny, smart, effective and that they are gone as it was is not so much ironic as cruel. But they did so much and it was all good!

They had worked for over 20 years to improve rail passenger service in the Pacific Northwest–indeed Jim was already active when I met him in 1981 at a Washington Association of Railroad Passengers meeting. The vastly improved Cascades Corridor is their memorial and legacy. In 1981 there were only two daily round-trips and one tri-weekly train between Seattle and Portland. Because of advocacy, positive support from both the state and Federal governments and a truly responsive Amtrak and BNSF in the northwest, there are now 14 daily Amtrak trains (7 round-trips) between Seattle and Portland, 2 more round-trips to Vancouver, the Empire Builder to Chicago and over 20 commuter trains every day on the Seattle-Tacoma-Lakewood part of the line–the greatest volume of passenger service in history to Seattle, and Tacoma.

May I also re share my Facebook tribute to them:

As we all knew they would be, Jim Hamre (of All Aboard Washington/WASHARP and a Board member of NARP) and his great friend Zack Willhoite (also an AAW/NARP activist) were on Amtrak Train 501 on the first run over the new route yesterday and they were, unbelievably, two of the three killed in the horrible derailment of that train.

I can’t even begin to express my grief! Zack was the kindest, smartest, most decent guy, and even more an extraordinarily insightful friend. Jim Hamre was quite simply the brother I never had, my best friend and a far better person than me.

I met Jim in 1981. Even then he was working on citizen advocacy for public transport. We leafleted, went to public meetings, mutually joined the NARP Board, but mostly had fun together. I met Zack through Jim. They were soul-mates. They went with me on tours I led to Europe and the world. We ate pizza together, laughed together, saw glorious scenery and wonderful places. The last time we were all three together was with Taylor (Zack’s wife) and Jim’s so beautiful mom Carolyn at his house for a steak barbecue last July.

I spent a week then with Jim to visit Hells Canyon, the Columbia Gorge, the Sumpter Valley RR, ride rental bikes over the Bitteroots on the Hiawatha Trail (ex-Milewaukee Road mainline grade) and to talk trains, politics, history, friends and simply to share with someone who could finish my thoughts and keep me sane. And I saw Jim again (thank God) for five days in Chicago last month at the NARP 50th Birthday Conference, but sadly not Zack. Our mutual friend Warren Yee was there, and that is a comfort.

I’m going to have to be unusually quiet for me to take this in, but oh God what a bloody waste. Three fatalities too many and so many of us knew two of them and they were so fine.

Carl Fowler
President (Retired)
Rail Travel Center/Rail Travel Adventures

Thoughts on Logistics for a Set of Business Meetings

I had two business meetings this last week on Friday. One in downtown Seattle and then another down in SODO (South of Downtown). Leaving Ballard and getting to Seattle is an easy exercise. Even while healing and a slower pace from walking and no bike option, downtown Seattle is a simple trip. It currently takes me an extra 5-20 minutes without the bike option, but it’s still only a 30-40 minute trip. But the ease of the trip ends at downtown, with anything south adding complexity at a dramatic rate.

Once I’ve arrived, either on the 17, 18, D Line, or 40 Bus, I then have to transfer to some bus or other mode that goes further south to SODO. Traveling through downtown is slow except on the LINK. But the LINK has two stops that aren’t particularly close to 1st avenue or very close to anything in the southern half of SODO.

Info on Ballard, SODO, and where downtown is for a better idea of these trips.

Regardless of the time it was an easy bus ride to both meets, with some of my current slow walking to each location. The weather was actually really nice during both of my walks from the bus to meeting, meeting to LINK, then LINK to meeting. Overall good trips, reliable, and they arrived (shockingly!) on time.

But let’s ponder a moment, since I’ve been doing this a bit more than usual dealing with being injured. My usual situation is to have my bike at my side. I can easily get on any of the above buses even sooner, splitting any time by 1/3-1/5th the walking time. On longer stretches connecting to the bus I easily can cut walking time even more by about 1/10th or more, because of the simple use of roadway and crossing sections that otherwise one must stop at in a car or walking, but on a bike one can slip between different blockages and still pass through legally on toward one’s destination.

I thought through the information and realized I could have cut out almost 32-36 minutes off of my walking time and could have cut out almost 8-20 minutes off of my bus riding time. The later I factored in that I could have caught the earlier 17 if I’d been on my bike, instead of limited to walking slowly from SODO to the 17 Express.

Being able to combine transit and bike trips, especially in massive cities in the United States, is fundamental to making trips quickly. Days like this, were I can’t pair the trips accurately are rough days. In future articles, I’ll break down comparisons in how I save tons of time versus using a car for errands, commutes, and trips too. It’ll get pretty spicy, so stay tuned. I’ve got some interesting and arguable disagreeable thoughts on the matter in the near future. I promise, whatever I do, it’ll be presented in standard Sleuth fashion with some data and good search terms to look into the matter futher!

Until next post, happy trips to all your destinations!

That Transit Supporter Split

Recently I was checking out a map of transit in Kraków, Poland. I traveled there a couple of years ago and took a number of pictures, traveled via transit a lot, and even got to bike around their fantastic bicycle infrastructure. Here’s links if you’d like to read about those adventures in The First Week, Observations of Kraków, The First Bike Rides in Kraków – Part I – Good Morning!, and The First Bike Rides in Kraków – Part II – Lunch Time Mission.

I may have mentioned it when I wrote about Krakow, but I’ll mention it again. Krakow makes US cities seem strangely outdated, draconian, and 3rd world like in so many ways. Kraków’s roads, transit, biking, and pedestrian facilities were dramatically better than anything in the US by a remarkable degree. The vehicles were more modern and capable, their buses smoother riding and cleaner, and the overall city was cleaner and more well put together. Even in the proverbial “slums” it seemed like the housing graded several levels above even what middle class neighborhoods or lifestyles would allow here in the United States. (If one can pretend there is even a middle class lifestyle these days, much of that is now gone) To note, what makes this even more impressive is that Kraków was under draconian Soviet authority for many decades. The US wasn’t, we’ve got no excuse to be so behind while Kraków has plenty of excuses and it isn’t behind!

I don’t write this to bash on US cities, we haven’t really taken care of them very well. But I do write this to make note that what we have here is something that needs dramatic work at massive levels. We’ve neglected cities for decades even though they’re the centers that bring in wealth and distribute it (via capitalism, socialism, or whatever method of economic distribution) more so than any other part of the nation. We should, and financially there’s no excuse, that our cities couldn’t be the most advanced, connected, enabling, empowering, quality, safe, and wealth generating cities on the entire planet. But instead we have barely sustained them by draining them of the wealth they generate. We’ve then – politically speaking both Democrats AND Republicans then went about distributing that wealth out in the most inefficient of ways for a whole slew of things; military waste, auto-dependency, subsidies to suburbs, and similar pet projects and other petty nonsense.

But that leaves us in a position with a lot of improvements to make. I’d argue the greatest improvement we could make today would be making the way we make improvements faster, more efficient, and more focused. We spend years, often decades, preparing for, fighting about, and eventually making improvements. Sometimes we spend and waste all that energy and then don’t actually make the improvements.

This belies one of the huge problems about deciding what improvements we should or should not be making. This battle is intense and one of the massive time destroying horrors of modern America. Take for instance the endless battle of the Portland metro area. It can easily be divided into “bridge and tunnel” crowd and the city crowd. Here I’ve drawn a map of the “We hate transit buses are for the poor and sickly evil people build more roads“, the “middle mixed area of maybes“, and the “please let’s build options to more efficiently travel about instead of relying on the evils of auto-dependency“. Note this is not a scientifically derived map, but one that’s based on the demographics data that is available. I create this to show a general outline of where and the conflict is, but also attempt use the stereotypes of either or group to add a bit of jest to the matter.

2000’s Era Split

The pink + area is the “please let’s build options to more efficiently travel about instead of relying on the evils of auto-dependency” crowd, while the section between the core and the black outlined area are the “middle mixed area of maybes”, then finally the massive area of few people in the “we hate transit buses are for the poor and sickly evil people build more roads” crowd. The overall split among the overall metropolitan population is about 60% of the population is in the pink core, 35% is in the area outlined in black, and about 5% is in the in between section of the map.

transit-demographics-1995

2017’s Era Split

This map, which I goofed getting Forrest Grove in there even though it ought to be included is basically that same percentage split of the population. Notice how with the increasing population though the area in which people definitely will support and want more options has increased. As the population has increased in those area it has also increased in the demand for improved transit, biking, and related options. Meanwhile, the outlying areas are still full of lots of naysayers and “we hate transit buses are for the poor and sickly evil people build more roads” crowd.

transit-demographics-2018

The demographic that wants options, higher quality, and improved transportation choices is growing in Portland, Seattle, and almost every city in the United States.

The real question however, as we’ve seen with poor support for transit in Washington as the Democrats go in to seriously gut funding for Sound Transit projects that the voters chose by a large margin, is will the politicians get their act together and get things built for their constituent populations that want improved situations?

The answer, for the most part right now seems to be, they’re trying but failing to truly deliver effectively what could be good solutions. We continue to get halfway done or meagerly built transit options at extremely high costs (Compare our costs vs. Europe’s). Part of it is our politicians, but lots of it has to do with our latent inability to work with our own system to get things done.

Maybe I’ll draw a map of Seattle later, but currently it’s basically the same mess. Now that I’ve written this I sadly admit, I’ve no solution to the problems of getting things done. Nor do I have any insight into ideas of my own at this point. This blog post is merely pointing out with some clarity the divide that causes our cities so much pain in moving forward. It’s the same split, almost the same, minor geographically different lines, that divides us on housing and housing solutions. It divides us on free parking versus paying one’s own way. In all of it, everyone is often confused or misinformed about who is or isn’t actually paying for who’s stuff. But rest assured, we’re all paying for each other’s stuff when we’re in a metropolitan area. As no matter what political alignment you are, cities are and forever will be some level of functional socialism.

Until those next thoughts, discoveries, and research, happy transiting.

A Summary of Current US Passenger Rail Plans

The last few days have been pretty extensive in coverage of rail related passenger services in the United States. A lot of the same repeated diatribe has followed, but some has been new and some has started to create some forward momentum. While reading through all of the material one of the pieces that stood out is an article at The Urbanist. It’s an article that covers numerous pieces of information about the current state of affairs of US rail projects including; The Sorry Case of Wisconsin, Brightline, Dallas’ Dire Need for Quality Transit, among others. The Urbanist, a good one to keep a check on regularly or just go ahead and subscribe, is a solid and reliable medium to keep up to date with transportation and urban news in Seattle and the state of Washington.

In other news, not that it takes an entire study at this point, but Microsoft backed one that tells us we really ought to have some high speed rail in the Cascadian Corridor! The WSDOT one here also has lots of good information about options beyond just high speed rail and other related options. The Governor is also bullish on the idea.

But I digress, that’s some good information if you want to catch up. The summary statement is, and history would show us, if the US would actually put forth just a little effort to modernize the infrastructure and systems we have (Air Traffic Control, High Speed Rail, Highways, Interstates, etc) we’d have a massive return on investment based on the build out of those systems. But alas, just like before Lincoln kicked off the rail boom to build the intercontinental railroads, the US sits laggardly in the dust of the world around us racing ahead into the future.

I hope to see these things take off soon. In the meantime, back to some urban-centric issues here in Portland and Seattle. Cheers!

A Slim Hope for Future US Passenger Rail Service

In my lifetime, I don’t nor could I really logically expect anything much better than what Amtrak offers in this country. Our current position in the world is to continually fall behind further until we’re dead last and have to intensely struggle through a great advancement. I’ve no idea how the country could cohesively pull that off, but it might happen one day. Until then there are a few slim chances that America gets good at this whole passenger service thing again. Here’s some of the things Amtrak and the United States Congress needs to straighten out.

  1. Setup a legal structure for Amtrak to operate similar to airlines or even rail lines in Japan, France, or Germany. That is, let Amtrak actually aim for real competitive and modern operation of the railroads they have.
  2. Get rid of Amtrak’s right of refusal on line usage, and encourage and build a legal and financial accounting system in which the economic efficiency of rail service make sense to privately (or publicly) operate between city pairs. There’s no reason anyone should be flying or driving between city pairs that are 50-300 miles apart unless for specific reasons (like hauling stuff in your car). For quick trips, especially of individuals, train service should absolutely be an option that’s available.
  3. Instate a reasonable insurance mechanism so that companies can insure, rail companies can buy, and people can expect fully insured passenger rail service that doesn’t destroy the actual operative and financial nature of the rail service. Currently passenger rail insurance is completely out of line with other modal insurance options. At least, last I checked (it’s been a few years).
  4. Get operators that have great records, and provide an option to take over services. There’s zero reason Amtrak being the pseudo-Government Corporation it is, should be running the entire system. Amtrak isn’t setup to run efficient, high end service. But other companies are, such as the Rocky Mountaineer or Alaska Railroad companies, both of which I’m sure would readily take over a line like the Empire Builder or otherwise and dramatically improve service. Just look at the services they provide – the Empire Builder could be returned to it’s former glory on a massive level. Same with the Coast Starlight and others.
  5. Have Congress work with the railroads to make them work with the Unions and also encourage (mandate) the unions operate the rail lines as efficiently as European operations. The European lines have unions (see SNCF, ICE, etc) and they’re net operationally profitable almost across the board, they’re noticeably safer for passengers, and the other amenities are generally better all around. There’s zero reason that the unions that work with Amtrak, or whatever passenger service can’t evolve to operate and work with the efficiency of those that do so much better – for customers AND the Union members.
  6. Another slim hope is the private sector breaking free of the oddball rules of anti-trust and related regulation that have curtailed passenger service station areas. For instance, the Brightline Service in southern Florida that is being built today, expects the trains to almost act as a loss leader or at most operationally profitable accounting item while the station areas are being built up for urban living. This is the way to build very efficient, very modern systems around smart and intelligent systemic build outs of living space, retail and commercial related space, and have connections between those spaces for the people that use them. This is a situation that is perfectly align-able with rail service.

Got other suggestions? Write a comment or two and maybe we’ll get a giant list, get a few thousand signatures and shoot it up to Congress eh? Well, we’ll at least talk about it and dream of a better passenger rail future eh!

Here’s a few other documents to get those brain storming sessions going!

For now, this will probably be the last post on US Passenger rail for a while. But I’ll have some urban, transit, and related posts coming up soon. Cheers!

Post Wreck Thoughts on 501, PTC, US Liability, and America’s Failing Transportation

I’m already looking forward to healing, obviously, and getting back on the bike. I look forward to riding back to King Street Station, getting on the train and handing off my bike for a station hand to rack on the train. Then rolling, minus a derailment, onward toward Portland to spend time with family and friends biking around town and enjoying one of the greatest, more human, pedestrian friendly, and foodie cities in this great nation. I don’t fear, fate has its hand in what it will hand me, but I can’t live with fear and worry, uncertainty, and doubt. I look forward and am beyond just thankful that I will live to ride this trip again.

In the meantime; Amtrak, Sound TransitWashington Department of Transportation (WSDOT), and Oregon Department of Transportation get y’alls asses in gear and get that PTC working, ensure those engineers really, truly, 100% know that line and please get this service running back at 100%! It’s too important to thousands of people to let falter!

New Information, Thoughts on PTC

As I should have expected, BNSF actually has the PTC up and running on their lines. Amtrak trains don’t have PTC on in cabs as far as I’ve learned. If anybody has more information about this please let me know, I’d love to get more details on the matter. I’ve started researching more about PTC too and trying to determine what exactly is the issue and complexity of the system beyond merely the cost. I know that’s as much a red herring as it is a legitimate excuse. PTC is in place in so many places on so many lines that there’s not a lot of functional excuse, except I bet there’s a lot of bullshit regulation and related bureaucratic mess in the way of the railroads getting this implemented.

The money, also something put totally on the backs of the railroads, hasn’t exactly been easy to invest in as they do have to stay sustainable (the freight railroads). Meanwhile, Amtrak which like all modes of transportation (cars, buses, places, etc) is entirely not sustainable from its current state of legislative ecosystem (meaning the way it must account for costs, revenue, systemic matters of stations, debt, etc).

Health Insurance, America Fails Americans Miserably

Another major issue here, that slams all transportation modes, is in insurance claim scenarios like this an incident is liable to entirely destroy a company that operates passenger service. In European countries people that are injured are covered under national health care policies and plans, and lawsuits and liability insurance help to rebuild and make the railroad (or airline, ship, or roadway) better after an incident. Instead in the United States, except for the cap placed by Congress in 1997, Amtrak has its budget wrecked by lawsuits and the need to cover people’s medical costs. Airlines suffer a similar fate if not careful. The problem is, there’s always accidents, but a passenger system shouldn’t be destroyed by lawsuits because of a singular accident, it should be fixed and rebuilt better, safer, and stronger.

In America, we simply do not do this anymore. Our actions instead tend toward destroying a large singular entity with litigation; such as Amtrak, an airline, or bus carrier, while with distributed incidents like the almost 40,000 deaths per year in automobiles, we simple push the cost back onto insurance and individual owners and purchasers. The latter works to perpetuate the most deadly of transportation modes (automobiles) while it defers, damages, and arguably makes the safer modes (buses, trains, planes, shits, etc) harder to operate, manage, and make safe. It’s a perverse and backwards effect that we get, but something that could be remedied with a simple fix.

Instate some form of national health insurance that would easily handle this versus a company or organization be decimated that is trying to build good, reliable, and safe way to travel. The fact we don’t have something in place for just basic, simple, and honest health and welfare in this nation is disheartening and decrease entrepreneurial activities of all sorts. The data shows this too, in tight correlation with actions in developed nations. We do better, have better business, able to build better systems (transportation and otherwise), and more if we had just the most basic of fundamental elements to fall back on in society. Simple single payer and a minor unemployment or injury welfare system would work seamlessly for this. Our current system however is 2x the cost and doesn’t do the job, but we have examples (Sweden, Norway, Finland, Switzerland, Netherlands, France, Germany, Japan, and many others) of how to do these two specific things at 1/2 the cost we currently do and actually having them be functional. Maybe we’ll get there one day, but unfortunately I’ve no hope of us succeeding in my lifetime.

On The Topic of Amtrak Safety

Amtrak has been notorious for unsafe activities along its lines. Much of that is conflict between Amtrak non-union and union employees. There has been cases where the union has even, or well individuals of the union, have even attacked prospective contractors that were going to provide service. There has been situations where the leadership has completely screwed over people in the union. I’ve studied the history and kept up with so many actions within the organization, that it’s hard to see which side would be the higher integrity side.

This of course conflicts with my own experience, as I know people in union and not in union at Amtrak that are top notch people. They work hard, they’re studious and have attention to detail. They’re safe and they work safe. But I also realize I have the viewpoint of operations in the northwest, which are very different than back east, and also different then down in California or the southeastern United States. Amtrak isn’t merely one big organization of singular work cultures. It is instead a giant Governmental quasi-corporation run around a faux demand for profits while working as a Government mandated transportation service that is built of what was many different corporate cultures. Why you may ask? It’s easier than one might at first see, but if we look at the history we know Amtrak came from the many railroads that used to run America’s massive, extensive, world class, and top tier passenger services around the country. Those cultures still eek through just a little in each geographic area and for respective trains along the lines.

How does one fix this? The NTSB issued some reports and Amtrak is slowly but steadily working on implementation. It’s important to note, like all transportation modes in America Amtrak is underfunded heavily for what it actually must do and how it must operate. Whatever the specific fixes are, the overall fix is that the non-union and union Amtrak staff must start working together to better focus on safety and ensure it’s actually part of the day to day operations. Instead, it’s currently something that is disregarded or ignored and this leads to these incidents. Nobody wants to incidents to happen, but they happen when this is how operations work. It must change.

America is Failing

We used to have the fastest trains, the best passenger service, at some reasonably good prices, in nice expedited fashion, that was routinely right on time.

Now, Amtrak barely putter along half the time. They’ve improved dramatically, but by comparison to European systems, even the one’s that aren’t top tier, like England’s or Italy’s rail systems, Amtrak trails far behind them in safety, quality of service, equipment, timeliness and related metrics. This comes from chronic under-funding from Congress and a blatant discrimination against rail service from mostly Republicans while Democrats fumble through managing Amtrak and fumbling through reasoning why Amtrak should have right of refusal over almost all of passenger service in America.

In Close…

That’s it for thoughts on the matter at the moment. In a future post I’ll talk a bit about the slim chance America has for improved service in the next 10-20 years. For now, I’m off to get some other things done, enjoy some Christmas time festivities, and simply be thankful that I’m alive today. Cheers, and merry Christmas, or happy holidays, to all.

If you’d like to learn more about Amtrak, and the convoluted insanity that is Government manipulated transportation in America, here’s a few starting points.

Passenger and Related Transportation Law, History & Info in America

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.

2017122010501014-img_3698-x4

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.