The Commercial Appeal
Bent track reviewed in ’21 Amtrak crash
HELENA, Mont. – Investigators probing a fatal 2021 Amtrak derailment in Montana disclosed Tuesday that the railroad track was bent along a curve near the accident site, and the problem got worse as freight trains traveled over the area before the crash.
Details on the bent track were included in hundreds of pages of investigative documents released by the National Transportation Safety Board. The three passengers who died and two who were seriously injured were in, or had just been in, an observation car that ended up on its side, the investigation found.
Railroad safety practices are facing renewed scrutiny after a fiery freight train derailment released toxic chemicals in Ohio. The Feb. 3 crash of a Norfolk Southern train forced evacuations and raised public health concerns.
Investigators identified the problem with the track based on video footage, including from two BNSF freight trains that went around the accident curve within 90 minutes before the Amtrak derailment.
After each of the freight trains had passed, the bend in the track appeared to get worse, investigators reported. Neither of the freight train crews saw the problem.
“The Amtrak engineer also did not see the track misalignment before traveling over that portion of track. Investigators, who watched the videos and were focused primarily on detecting the track deviation, were able to first see the misalignment only a couple seconds before the trains had traveled over it,” the investigators said.
They did not determine the final cause of the accident.
Amtrak’s Empire Builder derailed Sept. 25, 2021, in northern Montana while en route from Chicago to Seattle and Portland, Oregon, with 154 people on board. The track is owned by BNSF Railway. The train was traveling just below the speed limit of 79 mph when its emergency brakes were activated, the
Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari declined to comment on the track issues raised in the report. A spokesperson with BNSF Railway did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
Survivors described horrific scenes of people maimed and killed as four cars toppled and skidded down the tracks. Forty-four passengers and crew were taken to area hospitals with injuries. First responders and residents of the rural plains near the crash site banded together to transport injured passengers to Chester, Montana, where they were given food and other assistance.
Killed in the accident were Margie and Don Vardahoe, a Georgia couple on a cross-country trip to mark their 50th wedding anniversary, and Zachariah Schneider, 28, a software developer from Illinois.
Rail accidents including derailments have been trending down in the U.S. as the number of miles traveled by trains drops.
However, the rate of accidents per mile has been going up, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. Railway unions contend rail transportation has become riskier in recent years following widespread job cuts. Most rail accidents involve freight trains, and fatalities involving passenger trains are rare.