By Mike Baker, Seattle Times
SEATTLE — To prepare for the opening of a new rail line, conductors and engineers typically go through training to familiarize themselves with the route, its landmarks and its speed limits.
Amtrak did some of those exercises along the new Point Defiance Bypass route, according to federal investigators, who said crews had made trial runs in the weeks before the line opened on Monday. But a number of Amtrak workers have expressed concern in recent days about the adequacy of the training, according to a person briefed on the matter who spoke to The Seattle Times on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to discuss it.
The workers, the person said, were concerned that engineers had been piled into a single locomotive car to do training runs as a group, that conductors were largely kept in cars farther back in the train or on the trailing locomotive, that some did their familiarization runs in the dark after midnight, and that supervisors were unwilling or unavailable to answer questions about key route characteristics such as speed.
John Hiatt, a former railroad engineer who works as an investigator for a law firm that handles railroad accidents, said he has also heard from several Amtrak crew members in recent days who had similar concerns about the training for the new route, which was aimed at providing more daily round trips between Seattle and Portland. He said the concerns sounded credible and were a sign of a rushed effort to start new service without properly preparing crew members.
“What is accomplished by them being in the rear engine in the dark?” Hiatt asked.
Officials with the National Transportation Safety Board said training will be among the issues they examine as they investigate what caused Monday’s derailment south of Tacoma, which left three people dead and dozens more injured. NTSB officials have determined the train was going 78 mph in a 30-mph zone when it hit a curve and jumped off the tracks.
It was not immediately clear if NTSB investigators had interviewed any of those concerned workers.
Amtrak said its training exceeds federal standards but declined to provide specifics about the training that took place on the new line, citing the ongoing investigation.
“Amtrak engineers and conductors comply with federal requirements related to both certification for the roles that they hold and qualifications for the territories over which they perform service,” said Amtrak spokeswoman Christina Leeds in an email. “Employees are encouraged to express safety concerns at any time.”
Engineers who operate the trains from the locomotive and conductors who often manage and supervise the trips from other parts of the train typically rely on signs and a timetable that document the route.
Crew members can follow that information to keep on track, but current and former industry workers say familiarization is critical to enhancing the safety of the trip.
Mike Callanan, a former Amtrak conductor, said experience on the line helps crew members with location awareness. They grow familiar with landmarks and intersections and other details of the route, Callanan said, so that they know where they are at all times and where slowdown points are located — even if they miss seeing a speed sign.
Callanan said he thinks crew members need about 10 round trips in order to be comfortable with the route. The person briefed on the new Point Defiance Bypass line said some crew members have reported going on about three to five trips.
Hiatt, the former engineer, said the training time needed depends on the type of route, and he thinks five runs for an engineer would be ideal and perhaps three for a conductor. But he said that would involve having a qualified engineer experienced on the route training just one person at a time — not as a group — and all being done from the front cab.
Engineers are required by federal law to be “qualified on the physical characteristics of the territory” where they will be operating trains, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.
Railroads are largely left to develop their own training programs. The FRA recommends that the training programs account for when an engineer moves to a new territory that requires greater skills, and that failure to prepare for such scenarios may lead to a determination that the training program isn’t sufficient, an FRA spokesman said.
Similarly, according to the FRA, railroads cannot put conductors into service unless they are qualified for a territory, such as knowing the rules, instructions and physical characteristics of the area.
As the crew traveled south along the bypass route on Monday at close to 80 mph, they would have passed a speed limit sign about 2 miles before the curve. That sign, smaller than a speed-limit sign that drivers would see alongside a freeway, sits in an open area along the track, tilted at a 45-degree angle.
Hiatt said it would be unusual to miss such a warning sign, but he said there could be a perfect storm where it does happen, especially since engineers are monitoring so many different things, such as computer screens, air gauges, whistles and crossings.
“Every trip I ever made, I knew where that sign was,” Hiatt said. “I almost instinctively looked in that area and my eyes went in that direction. I knew it was there. That’s training. That’s repetitiveness.”
The NTSB has said the engineer was in the front of the train along with a conductor-in-training, and investigators will be examining whether the engineer was distracted. Callanan said it wouldn’t be abnormal to have a conductor-in-training in the cab but that it could have exacerbated the lack of situational awareness for an engineer who may have been unfamiliar with the route.
The NTSB said Friday that about six seconds before the derailment, the engineer made a comment about traveling too fast and hit the brakes. The train derailed at the corner, spilling down an embankment and onto Interstate 5 below.