Amtrak engineer possibly distracted before speeding train derailed, officials say

After saying an Amtrak train that derailed Monday was traveling more than 50 mph above the speed limit, investigators are now apparently looking into whether the engineer was distracted by another person in the locomotive.

An employee-in-training was with the engineer in the cab when the 14-car train hurtled off an overpass above Interstate 5, killing three passengers and injuring more than 100, and investigators want to know whether the engineer lost “situational awareness,” an unnamed federal official told The Associated Press.

The train was traveling 80 mph in a 30 mph zone when it jumped the tracks on a curve coming around a bridge near Mounts Road in DuPont.

The National Transportation Safety Board said the preliminary information was taken from a data recorder in the rear locomotive of the Amtrak.

Bella Dinh-Zarr, an NTSB board member, said it’s “too early to tell” why the train was going so fast.

“Our mission is not to just understand what happened but why it happened so we can recommend changes.”

Positive train control — the technology that can slow or stop a speeding train — was installed but not yet activated on this stretch of track, Amtrak President Richard Anderson said.

Regulators have been pressing railroads for years to install such technology, but the deadline has been extended repeatedly at the industry's request and is now the end of 2018.

Investigators flew in late Monday and plan to stay a week looking into the derailment, which continues to keep all southbound lanes of Interstate 5 shut down.

Traffic continued to be a nightmare for those trying to find a way around the closure, in some places backing up 16 miles.

The State Patrol recommended drivers use state Route 16 and state Route 3 as alternate routes since southbound I-5 will remain closed through at least Wednesday morning’s commute. The northbound lanes are open.

Crews are working to remove train cars from the scene.

Three passengers are confirmed dead and more than 100 were taken to area hospitals.

Of those injured, 10 are in serious condition.

Amtrak officials said 86 people were on the train when it derailed. Thirteen of 14 cars came off the tracks, some of them falling on the freeway below and some of them landing in a wooded area.

Train cars struck five vehicles and two semi-trailers below.

The train was on its first public run of a new, faster route meant to shave 10 minutes off the ride from Seattle to Portland.

Monday's deadly derailment is rare in Washington, according to statistics compiled by the Federal Rail Administration, which tracks rail-related accidents and fatalities across the country.

While rail-related deaths occur, most fall into a category labeled as "trespassing," which translates to pedestrians or drivers crossing tracks in the path of oncoming trains. Other deaths involved rail workers and construction-related accidents, or passengers with medical emergencies. The numbers show 387 railway-related fatalities in Washington since 1997, 66 in Pierce County. No fatalities resulted from train derailments, according to The News Tribune's analysis.

The federal agency's statistics lack detail prior to 1997, making it more difficult to pinpoint an earlier deadly crash. On Nov. 11, 1993, a pair of freight trains collided near Kelso, killing five crew members, including two men from Tacoma and Puyallup.

Read more about the derailment here.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653

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