The exact details surrounding this week’s horrible train crash in Dupont, Washington, south of Seattle, are still being pieced together. If the media reports that have emerged this week are accurate, however, they paint a picture of an extremely reckless engineer. That, in turn, raises questions about the safety controls and background procedures which Amtrak has – or should have had – in place to prevent exactly this kind of accident.
According to The New York Times, investigators at the crash scene near Tacoma are “focusing on the possibility that the engineer was distracted by a cellphone, another person in his cab or something else when the train barreled into a curve 50 miles per hour over the posted speed limit.” The driver and other members of the train crew, all of whom are currently hospitalized, will also be tested for drug and alcohol use.
As numerous media accounts have noted in the days since the crash, this accident in many ways resembles another fatal Amtrak crash near Philadelphia in 2015. In that instance the train was also traveling much too quickly, leading it to jump the tracks. An investigation showed that the engineer, who died in the accident, had “lost situational awareness,” according to the Times. The combination of distraction and lack of familiarity with the train’s route is emerging as a focus of the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation. Monday’s crash took place during the inaugural run of a new Seattle-to-Portland passenger service and took place on a new portion of the route where tracks had recently been upgraded. The paper quotes a rail safety expert asking rhetorically whether the engineer driving Monday’s train was sufficiently familiar with the new portions of the route. “I’m sure there was some familiarization, but the question is, how familiar was he with it?”
These are questions that will also need to be considered from a legal perspective. Granted how fast the train was going, were there safety devices that could have prevented the accident had they been installed and functioning (this was a question that was also raised in reference to the 2015 crash)? Did some defect in equipment or some shortfall in training contribute to the position in which the engineer suddenly found himself? Were the signaling systems along the rail line and in the engine’s cab working properly? It will be critical in the weeks and months to come to examine all of these questions just as closely as the cellphone records and onboard camera footage of the train crew.
Trains in many ways operate in a separate legal and regulatory environment from cars and trucks, but that does not necessarily mean that existing distracted driving rules may not apply. More important, however, are likely to be Washington State’s wrongful death laws (RCW 4.20.010). As a Portland-based attorney practicing in both Washington and Oregon I will be watching the details of this case closely as they unfold in the weeks and months to come. Families who have lost loved ones in this accident should be careful about exploring their legal options in what is certain to be a complex and multi-leveled case.
The New York Times: Amtrak Inquiry Will Focus on Driver Distraction and Excessive Speed