Rail investigator says train derailment may have been caused by more than just speed

FILE - In this Dec. 18, 2017, file photo, cars from an Amtrak train lie spilled onto Interstate 5 below alongside smashed vehicles as some train cars remain on the tracks above in DuPont, Wash. Federal investigators say video aboard the Amtrak train that derailed in Washington state shows crews weren't using personal electronic devices and that the engineer remarked about the speed six seconds before the train went off the tracks south of Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

DUPONT, Wash. (KOMO) -- Speed was a contributing factor to December's deadly train derailment that killed three people near DuPont.

However, a rail accident investigator said training, the track and Amtrak's culture may have also played a role.

Former train engineer John Hiatt now investigates rail accidents for law firms that have sued Amtrak in the past.

Hiatt is hearing from Amtrak employees who are questioning the company's safety culture.

"There are employees who did not want to come out because they are afraid of losing their job," Hiatt said. "The safety culture is shot and they are poised for failure."

So where will the blame lie for the Amtrak 501 derailment? It could be a year before the National Transportation Safety Board releases its findings.

What is already known is that an audio recording revealed the engineer realized the train was going too fast into the curve six seconds before the crash.

"I look at the curve...even the video of it is scary and I am an engineer," Hiatt said.

The State Department of Transportation, which received a 181 million dollar rebuild of the track, dismisses a published report that said it did not follow a 2006 plan to straighten the curve to save money.

Add to that, training for the new run was done at night and Hiatt said with some crew put into the rear locomotive facing backward.

"It's like riding in the trunk of a car to learn to drive," Hiatt said. "It doesn't make any sense at all and it was brought up at the time that this doesn't make any sense. How are these guys learning this route by riding in the reverse direction in the dark."

Drivers often encounter flashing warning lights to slow down hearing into a curve, but this train had just one static warning sign two miles ahead of the deadly curve.

The NTSB said the train was going 78 miles per hour when it derailed.

"If you do happen to miss that, there goes your only warning to take a train from 79 down to a 30 mile an hour curve that is over the top of Interstate 5 that all of these people will tell you is the most dangerous part of the entire run, is that curve right there," Hiatt said.

Sound Transit owns the track but the state Department of Transportation rebuilt the track leading into the curve, owns the locomotives, many of the rail cars, and contracted with Amtrak to operate the train and hire its crew.

KOMO News was unable to verify Hiatt's claims with Amtrak.

The line, known as the Point Defiance Bypass, has been shut down to passenger rail service until positive train control has been installed. That could happen by next summer..

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