Railway Curve Where Amtrak Train Wrecked Once Considered For Straightening

Dec 22, 2017

The curve where an Amtrak train derailed on Monday killing three people was once on a list to be straightened. But that project was dropped from the list of improvements eventually made due to its high cost.

More than a decade ago, the Washington State Department of Transportation drew up conceptual documents for how to upgrade Amtrak Cascades service to 110 mile per hour speeds. The Wall Street Journal was first to unearth a long-range plan from 2006 that specifically describes the curve where Monday's derailment happened as unsuitably sharp for high-speed rail.

Straightening out that 30 mile per hour curve would require a long, elevated trackway angled over Interstate 5 and down a hillside. The exact cost for that wasn't broken out of a $412 million estimate for the full wish list of improvements for a new, more direct bypass route. The state got less than half of that, still a tidy $181 million to use on the Point Defiance Bypass, when Congress approved a major economic stimulus package in 2009.

“The track configuration as it exists today meets all Federal Railroad Administration requirements,” WSDOT said in a statement late Friday.

"This plan was not developed using financial constraints," former state Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond wrote in a 2007 introduction to the long-range plan. "As a result, the plan's 'building blocks' with their operational benefits are intended to be implemented incrementally while we continue to seek funding alternatives to include a federal capital funding partnership consistent with other modes of transportation."

Items on the wish list that were funded included double-tracking a stretch on the northern end of the bypass to increase capacity, rehabbing the legacy track and installing more robust crossing barriers and advanced signaling.

The Amtrak train that derailed Monday was on its inaugural run with paying customers on the bypass route. Its last recorded speed before jumping the tracks at the curve in question near DuPont was 78 mph, according to a National Transportation Safety Board investigation update released on Friday.

"Trains successfully ran the bypass track numerous times in the past few months during track testing, locomotive testing and engineer qualification on the tracks, and the ceremonial train ride with passengers on Dec. 15 during the new (Tacoma) station dedication," Friday’s WSDOT statement said.

A WSDOT spokeswoman said the agency decided Thursday not to resume passenger service on the bypass line until automatic safety braking systems are activated. That technology, known as positive train control, is in the process of installation and expected to be ready sometime next year.

The bypass improvements were meant to separate freight and passenger trains on a stretch from the Nisqually River to Tacoma. Both services now share a waterside route, where the freight trains will stay. The bypass, which parallels Interstate 5, shaves 10 minutes off a train trip to Portland. It also opened the door for two additional daily round trips between Portland and Seattle.

Sound Transit purchased the Point Defiance Bypass line from BNSF in the mid-2000s and shares it with Amtrak. WSDOT and the Oregon Department of Transportation co-own the Amtrak Cascades service and contract with Amtrak to operate it.