Rail horror along Interstate 5 needs answers

Weeks or months may be needed to fully understand what went wrong Monday when the high-speed Amtrak passenger train derailed near DuPont and plunged off a trestle onto Interstate 5. But we need answers.

At least three people died and about 80 were reported injured on this disastrous, maiden trip for a new Seattle-to-Portland rail route for Northwest travelers using a new bypass rail spur.

Early indications from the National Transportation Safety Board are that speed was a factor. The train that left Tacoma was going about 80 mph when it reached a bend in the tracks — just before the trestle — where 30 mph was advised.

There are questions whether equipment that automatically can slow trains to match the recommended speeds of hazardous areas was on the train or in operation. Such equipment is to be installed on all Northwest Cascades trains by the middle of next year, according to the state Department of Transportation.

The 7:33 a.m. crash was along the newly upgraded bypass route that goes from Tacoma to south of the Nisqually River. Sound Transit, which operates in four counties, used about $180 million from the 2009 federal economic stimulus package to buy and upgrade the 14.5-mile stretch of track.

This so-called Point Defiance bypass was meant to improve safety and save time by separating a section of the north-south passenger rail route from the freight corridor that runs south from Tacoma along Puget Sound.

The NTSB investigation could take a year to be completed. But details that identify any continuing public safety risks are needed as soon as possible.

And as our communities move forward in grieving lost loved ones, Northwest political leaders must not shy away from facing the facts. This was an unthinkable crash that turned a happy moment for public transit into a tragic mistake. One way to ensure that this doesn’t diminish the role that rail can play in our region's transportation future is to acknowledge and fix the problems.

For the moment the horror felt by passengers keeps ringing in our ears.

“It sounded like being on the inside of an aluminum can being crushed,” Tacoma resident Chris Karnes told one news reporter. “And then we were not on the tracks anymore.”

As a saving grace, our South Sound first-responders — aided by passers-by and survivors of the crash — acted selflessly in the immediate aftermath of the crash to help those injured.

There were reports of a soldier from nearby Joint Base Lewis McChord climbing up a dangling rail car to help passengers get out to safety. A Portland doctor who happened upon the scene was reported to have assisted personnel from nearby medical facilities in the triage of the injured.

We owe these volunteers and our paid first-responders our deepest thanks.