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Amtrak Derailment Investigations Underway

Friday, October 1, 2021

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Officials from the National Transportation Safety Board have recently launched an investigation into the deadly derailment of Amtrak’s Empire Builder train in a remote section of north-central Montana on Saturday (Sept. 25).

Occurring near a switch on the tracks near the small town of Joplin, the derailment resulted in three fatalities and several injuries requiring hospitalization. At the time of the crash, the Amtrak train was carrying about 141 passengers and 16 crewmembers and was composed of two locomotives and 10 cars.

Eight of the 10 cars were reported to have derailed in the crash, with some tipping onto their sides.

What Happened

Around 4 p.m. on Saturday (Sept. 25), the westbound Empire Builder was traveling from Chicago to Seattle when it reportedly derailed near a switch near Joplin, Montana. At the time of the crash, the train was traveling between 75 and 78 miles per hour, which is under the rail line’s 79-mph speed limit.

As a result of the crash, crews reported three fatalities and dozens of injuries. Sarah Robbin, the Liberty County Emergency Services Coordinator, reported that while most of those on the train were treated and released for their injuries, five individuals who were more seriously hurt were sent to the Benefis Health System hospital in Great Falls, Montana.

According to a hospital spokeswoman, two others were still in the intensive care unit on Monday (Sept. 27).

“I was in one of the front cars and we got badly jostled, thrown from one side of the train to the other,” said Jacob Cordeiro, one of the surviving passengers. “I'm a pretty big guy and it picked me up from my chair and threw me into one wall and then threw me into the other wall.”

On the day after the incident, law enforcement reported that officials from the NTSB, Amtrak and BNSF Railway, and the Federal Railroad Administration were onsite at the scene of the accident. Around that time, several large cranes had also arrived at the site to move the railcars. In addition, railway officials brought new gravel and new railroad ties for necessary repairs.


While federal investigators are looking into what caused the Amtrak train to derail, several railroad safety experts have already started to weigh in.

One of those experts—David Clarke, Director of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Tennessee—has pointed out that although eight of the cars completely derailed from the track, the two locomotives and two cars at the front of the train reached the switch and remained on the main track.

In his observations, however, Clarke is still unclear as to whether some of the last cars moved onto the second track. “Did the switch play some role? It might have been that the front of the train hit the switch and it started fish-tailing and that flipped the back part of the train,” Clarke said.

Another possibility, Clarke added, would have been a potential defect in the rail, which wouldn’t have been caught in regular rail testing.

Although Allan Zarembski, Director of the University of Delaware's Railway Engineering and Safety Program, didn’t want to speculate, he also suspected that the derailment could have stemmed from an issue in the track, train equipment or both.

In voicing his take, Zarembski added that he didn’t believe the derailment was by human error, in that they have been “virtually eliminated” after the implementation of positive train control nationwide.

“Things like over-speed or something like that should not have happened,” said Zarembski. “I don’t think this was a case where the switch was improperly set because, among other things, the lead locomotive did not derail and positive train control would have picked up an improperly set switch.”

Since the accident, a 14-member NTSB team has been assigned to investigate the case. The NTSB will be joined by other investigators and railroad signal specialists from Amtrak, BNSF and the FRA.

According to the NTSB, the BNSF Railway is expected to resume freight and passenger operations as soon as investigators have completed documenting everything they need from the crash site. The NTSB, which also will make recommendations on how to prevent similar crashes, is expected to be onsite for about a week and release a preliminary report within 30 days.


Tagged categories: Accidents; Fatalities; Federal Railroad Administration; Health & Safety; Health and safety; Infrastructure; Mass transit; NA; North America; Public Transit; Rail; Railcars; Safety; Transportation

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