The Oklahoman

Investigat­ors seek cause of fatal train derailment

Human error not likely, safety expert says

- Amy Beth Hanson, Martha Bellisle and Anita Snow

JOPLIN, Mont. – Federal investigat­ors are seeking the cause of an Amtrak train derailment near a switch on tracks in the middle of vast farmland in far northern Montana that killed three people and left seven hospitaliz­ed over the weekend.

The westbound Empire Builder was traveling from Chicago to Seattle when it left the tracks about 4 p.m. Saturday near Joplin, a town of about 200. Amtrak spokesman Jason Abrams said the train carried about 141 passengers and 16 crew members. It had two locomotive­s and 10 cars, eight of which derailed, with some tipping over.

Trevor Fossen was first on the scene. The Joplin resident was on a dirt road near the tracks Saturday when he saw “a wall of dust” hundreds of feet high.

“I started looking at that, wondering what it was, and then I saw the train had tipped over and derailed,” said Fossen, who called 911 and started trying to get people out. He called his brother to bring ladders for people who couldn’t get down after exiting through the windows of cars resting on their sides.

Passenger Jacob Cordeiro from Rhode Island was traveling with his father to Seattle to celebrate his college graduation.

“I was in one of the front cars, and we got badly jostled, thrown from one side of the train to the other,” he told MSNBC. He said the train car left the tracks near a switch where two tracks narrow to one but did not fall over.

“I’m a pretty big guy, and it picked me up from my chair and threw me into one wall and then threw me into the other wall,” Cordeiro said.

Railroad safety expert David Clarke, director of the Center for Transporta­tion Research at the University of Tennessee, said the two locomotive­s and two cars at the front of the train reached the switch and continued on the main track, but the remaining eight cars derailed. He said it was unclear whether some of the last cars moved onto the second track.

“It might have been that the front of the train hit the switch and it started fish-tailing and that flipped the back part of the train,” Clarke said.

Another possibilit­y was a defect in the rail, Clarke said, noting that regular testing doesn’t always catch such problems.

Allan Zarembski, director of the University of Delaware’s Railway Engineerin­g and Safety Program, said he didn’t want to speculate but suspected the derailment stemmed from an issue with the train track, equipment or both.

Railways have “virtually eliminated” major derailment­s by human error after the implementa­tion of positive train control nationwide, Zarembski said.

Matt Jones, a BNSF Railway spokesman, said at a news conference that the track where the accident occurred was last inspected on Thursday.

A 14-member National Transporta­tion Safety Board team including investigat­ors and railroad signal specialist­s will be looking into the cause of the accident on a BNSF Railway track, NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss said.

 ?? TED S. WARREN/AP ?? Workers stand on a train car on its side as front-loaders prop up another train car on Sunday just west of Joplin, Mont.
TED S. WARREN/AP Workers stand on a train car on its side as front-loaders prop up another train car on Sunday just west of Joplin, Mont.

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