Derailment came on new, $181 million rail bypass

  • Mon Dec 18th, 2017 6:00pm
  • News

Monday’s fatal derailment of an Amtrak train occurred on a rebuilt, $181 million track corridor that was supposed to make the trip between Seattle and Portland more reliable.

Amtrak Cascades 501, with 70 people aboard, was the first regular service to use the “bypass” track that goes directly from Tacoma to DuPont, instead of a slow but scenic path along Puget Sound at Tacoma Narrows. The railcars derailed onto I-5 on an old overpass that was outfitted with all new rails, said Janet Matkin, spokeswoman for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT). There are no switches in the immediate area, she said.

The Associated Press said at least six people died, while dozens of others were transported to hospitals or treated by medics.

This was the second Cascades derailment of the year. In July, a train ran a stop signal and was deflected into gravel near Chambers Bay along the Sound, causing some minor injuries.

Washington state is one of the few regions investing heavily in passenger rail, a program marred by Monday’s tragedy, and its blockage of both rail and freeway networks.

The passenger-rail retrofit was approved by regional voters in the Sound Transit 2 ballot measure of 2008, and by WSDOT’s rail division. Funding included stimulus money from the Obama administration, which sought to create faster rail across the U.S. Some states ignored or rejected federal aid, but Washington state ended up with about $800 million.

The trackway near DuPont is meant to carry trains at speeds up to 80 mph. By improving tracks and switches, WSDOT hoped to reduce delays and lower travel times by 10 minutes between Seattle and Portland.

Dignitaries on Friday rode the new inland tracks to celebrate the project, the addition of two more Amtrak trains starting Monday, and a new Tacoma Dome Station. The regional ST3 transit tax measure, approved last year, includes a promise to put Sounder commuter trains on the line south of Lakewood, so they reach future stations at Tillicum and Dupont.

Not everyone thought the rail bypass was a great idea.

The city of Lakewood sued to halt the project, because of the threat of faster trains going through neighborhoods. In addition, the route crosses major arterials next to I-5 and Joint Base Lewis McChord. Monday’s crash occurred a mile from population centers.

Amtrak now runs in a corridor that was formerly used just by Tacoma Rail local freight trains.

Regional freight, including oil trains, continues to wind along the Narrows and Point Defiance. It merges with the Amtrak line in Nisqually, just south of the derailment site.

Because of the derailment, WSDOT says, the Amtrak Cascades trains would detour for the rest of the day Monday onto their former route along the waterfront.