Since Amtrak Cascades passenger train 501 careened off the tracks south of Dupont Monday, questions have been directed at whether the engineer may have been at fault because the train was traveling nearly 50 miles per hour faster than it should have been.
Three men died in the derailment. Nearly 100 others were injured.
On Friday, a longtime railroad investigator told KIRO 7, people should not be so quick to judge.
“Anybody who points their finger at this engineer in this accident is making a very bad mistake,” John Hiatt said.
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Hiatt is a former BNSF engineer who has been working as a railroad investigator with the Bremseth Law firm in Minnetonka, Minnesota, for the past 25-years. He lives in Puyallup, and has spent the four days since the deadly derailment speaking with multiple Amtrak and other railroad employees.
Earlier this week, NTSB Board Member Bella Dinh-Zarr revealed that crew members on the new route trained for two weeks prior to the run's launch on Monday.
Hiatt believes whatever training they received it wasn't enough.
“They were hurrying,” he told KIRO 7. “They had this little, tiny window and they had this December 18th deadline. Deadlines can’t be the dictator of how you do things. Safety has to be.”
Based on what railroad employees have told him, Haitt said the engineer hit the curve at 78-miles an hour instead of 30 MPH because he most likely did not know there was a tight curve ahead.
“They just didn’t know where they were at.”
“These guys were trained in darkness. All of them,” Hiatt said he was told. “They couldn’t get availability to the track during the daytime, so that’s part of the factor.”
Another problem, according to Hiatt’s sources; too many engineers received training at once. “I’ve heard six people were in the locomotive cab, which has three seats.”
“They had all of them in there to qualify as a group, so they would take turns running the locomotive. That’s not the efficient way to do this, and that’s a sign they were doing this (training) in a hurry,” Hiatt told KIRO 7.
A former engineer himself, Hiatt believes engineers need at least three solo training runs, one on one with an officer who can show them a route and its landmarks, especially on a new run, such as the Point Defiance Bypass.
Hiatt said, his sources told him that engineers took turns at the helm of the forward engine during training when they had access.
“When they got off their regular run, they had to figure out a way to squeeze them some way into this training, plus be able to keep their other trains running. It was pretty chaotic.”
Meanwhile, Hiatt said conductors spent most of their training time in the rear – not front --- locomotive.
“Riding a trailing locomotive, in the dark, what’s the benefit? That’s like learning to drive a car while riding in the trunk. It makes zero sense, and the NTSB is aware of this now. I’ve told all the people who have contacted me to go to the NTSB.”
Hiatt has faith in the NTSB and its investigators. He also respects Amtrak's conductors and engineers, including the one at the controls Monday.
“I don’t know him personally, but from everything people are telling me, he was a very good engineer. Took his job very seriously.”
“Don’t criticize this guy until you know exactly what’s going on out there. There’s a lot of systemic failure that lead to this. He just happened to be the guy in the seat at the time.”
The NTSB investigation into what caused the crash is expected to take 12 to 24 months.
Meanwhile, KIRO 7 asked Amtrak to address Hiatt’s claims about alleged training deficiencies prior to Monday’s fatal derailment.
Christina Leeds, Amtrak’s Director of Media Relations and Business Communications, responded in an email that the NTSB won’t allow Amtrak to provide specific details regarding the Amtrak 501 crew’s training.
Instead, Leeds released the following information:
- 49 CFR
- Applicable Locomotive Operating Manuals
- Host Railroad Operating Rules
- Applicable System Special Instructions
- System general Road Foreman Notices
- 49 CFR
- PREPARE Training
- Crew Resource Management
- Service Standards Manual
- Equipment Orientation
- Host Railroad Operating Rules
- Amtrak Corporate Policies
- Rail equipment familiarization
- Situational awareness
- Passenger evacuation
- Coordination of functions/operations
- Emergency care
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