Although Amtrak had a record year, with 31.7 million passenger trips and $3.2 billion in revenue, the company suffered a devastating blow this week when their Cascades 501 train derailed during its first journey on a brand new route from Seattle to Portland.
The train, which was carrying 77 passengers and eight crew members, was the first to travel a new, shortened route. The tracks had undergone extensive testing and millions of dollars’ worth of improvements. However, the train was traveling approximately 80 miles per hour in a 30-mile-per-hour speed zone, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. When the train went around a curve, it ran off the track and plummeted off of an overpass and onto a busy roadway below.
Although 1.2 million people die in car accidents every year, only about 805 railway fatalities were reported in 2016, which makes events like these much more scarce. Why the train was traveling at such a high speed is yet to be discovered. Shockingly, positive train control (a type of technology that slows and/or stops a speeding train automatically) was not activated in this case. Although it had been installed on the track, it was not yet operational.
National Transportation Safety Board member T. Bella Dinh-Zarr told CNN, “We have recommended PTC for decades. Unfortunately the deadline was moved farther into the future, and every year that we wait to implement PTC to its fullest extent means that more people will be killed and injured.”
Out of the 31 million people injured in the United States every year, approximately 2 million require hospitalization. More than 100 people, including train passengers and personnel and motorists on the roadway below, impacted by the derailment were transported to area hospitals for treatment; at least 10 of these wounded individuals remained in serious condition. Thus far, three people have been killed as a result of the accident.
It’s a heartbreaking end to Amtrak’s stellar year. All of the company’s service lines reported ridership growth during this fiscal year, and there’s been quite a bit of to-do surrounding the new Washington state routes, in particular. Amtrak has made a concerted effort in recent years to improve their popularity, with offerings like their “Trails and Rails” program — a partnership with the National Park Service to include natural and historic sites in their travel packages — to entice adventurers. Since 42.5 million Americans went camping in 2011, this move was applauded by outdoors enthusiasts and hobbyist historians alike. But because such a devastating incident occurred on a train’s inaugural trip, Amtrak may find it a bit difficult to recover.
In an official statement, Amtrak said the company is “deeply saddened by the loss of life and injuries” and will continue to work closely with victims and their loved ones.
The statement also added, “There is a thorough investigation underway to determine what happened. The investigation will be conducted by [the National Transportation Safety Board], and we will cooperate fully with all authorities. At this time, we will not speculate about the cause, and we encourage others not to speculate as well.”