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A year later, passengers still seeking answers in deadly Amtrak crash

caption: FILE: The site of a deadly Amtrak derailment on Monday, December 18, 2017, in Dupont.
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FILE: The site of a deadly Amtrak derailment on Monday, December 18, 2017, in Dupont.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

One year after an Amtrak derailment near DuPont left three people dead and dozens injured, Ralph Baarslag has questions.

He was a passenger riding the train out of Tacoma on Monday.

Right now it’s on the old route, which winds along south Puget Sound. On Dec. 18, 2018, the Amtrak Cascades 501 was on the inaugural run on a new route that would have saved about 10 minutes.

“I’m shocked that they would put a new person behind the wheel of that train on a maiden voyage,” he said. “And why they were cruising at such speed into a tight corner, that part I’ve never figured out.”

The train was traveling about 80 mph in a 30-mph area when it missed a curve and derailed, sending cars hurtling onto Interstate 5 and into trees.

The engineer driving the train that day had qualified for that section of track, the Point Defiance Bypass, with observational trips, along with three trips operating the equipment along that stretch, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

But the engineer told investigators that on the day of the crash he missed seeing a sign for the 30-mph zone.

Since the derailment Amtrak has been installing new safety equipment, including positive train control, a system that is intended to prevent crashes in such a situation.

Amtrak said it has also adopted a new protocol to standardize how crews are trained and qualified on new territory.

Grace Kerry was also on the train Monday, heading off to visit family. She also rode the train shortly after the derailment.

“I was nervous but I still went,” she said. “The likelihood of that happening again a few weeks later is low. But I was so nervous about it.”

Amtrak said the train will return to the new bypass route sometime this spring. That might be ambitious. There's still an NTSB investigation and dozens of lawsuits pending.

Riders like Baarslag say they’ll miss the scenic route along the water.

“It’ll cut a little time off to get to Portland, which kind of bums me out because the longer the trip the better,” he said.

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