Offering daily news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Amtrak Cascades 501 derails onto Interstate 5 at Mounts Road; several passengers killed

An Amtrak Cascades train making its inaugural run on the new Pierce County alignment that WSDOT has spent years working to get open derailed this morning over Interstate 5 at Mount Roads, killing at least three people and injuring dozens more. Southbound I-5 is closed for the indefinite future and the National Transportation Safety Board is sending a “go team” to investigate.

Cascades 501 was between Tacoma and Lacey when it went off the rails. It had departed Seattle shortly after 6 AM, and reportedly derailed around 7:33 AM.

The wreckage of Amtrak Cascades 501

The wreckage of Amtrak Cascades 501 (Chris Karnes)

The consist included two locomotives. One of them was a new Siemens SC-44 Charger diesel-electric. There were also twelve railcars (most of which were coaches).

Five automobiles were struck by the train when it derailed, the State Patrol said.

The new alignment that Cascades 501 was running on has been in the works since funding was approved as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) early in Barack Obama’s presidency. It cost $181 million.

Sound Transit owns the tracks, but does not operate Sounder on the stretch of rail where Cascades 501 derailed. (Sounder terminates at Lakewood; it will one day terminate at DuPont. Both endpoints are north of Mounts Road.)

Map of the Point Defiance Bypass project (WSDOT)

Map of the Point Defiance Bypass project (WSDOT)

WSDOT — which is responsible for Cascades service along with Oregon’s ODOT — celebrated the completion of the new alignment and an accompanying new passenger station at Tacoma’s Freighthouse Square on Friday.

But joy has given way to horror. WSDOT’s Rail Office will now have to help the National Transportation Safety Board figure out what went horribly wrong.

The wreckage of Amtrak Cascades 501

The wreckage of Amtrak Cascades 501, as seen from the closed southbound lanes of Interstate 5 (Photo: Trooper Brooke Bova)

“We are working closely with multiple partners, including Washington State Patrol, Sound Transit, Amtrak, Pierce County, JBLM and local emergency responders to assess the situation and render assistance,” WSDOT said in a statement.

“After emergency response is complete, and the National Transportation Safety Board has released the scene, the train will be removed from the interstate right of way. We anticipate this will be a lengthy process due to the severity of the incident and the size and weight of the train cars. WSDOT is working with other agencies on any rerouting of traffic during the investigation.”

“The Amtrak Cascades train service is jointly owned by the Washington State Department of Transportation and the Oregon Department of Transportation,” the department’s news release went on to note. “Amtrak operates the service for the two states as a contractor, and is responsible for day-to-day operations. Amtrak Cascades runs trains from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Eugene, Oregon.”

“Today’s tragic incident in Pierce County is a serious and ongoing emergency,” said Governor Jay Inslee. “Trudi and I are holding in our hearts everyone on board, and are praying for the many injured. They are our top priority, and I know first responders are doing everything to ensure everyone has the care they need.”

The Governor is now on the scene of the crash in Pierce County with his team.

“Everyone should avoid traveling I-5, and WSDOT is working to open alternative routes through the area during the emergency response,” the Governor added. “This morning I spoke with my cabinet officials, and we are in touch with Amtrak who we know are working to provide as much information as possible.”

WSDOT will have further updates on Twitter, those in the area can mark themselves safe with Facebook Safety Check, and I will be monitoring the situation with our team during the ongoing response.”

For those who had family members on board Cascades 501, there is a family reunification center at DuPont City Hall. Amtrak says to call 800-523-9101 if you have questions about anyone who was on board.

Seattle-area television stations like KING5 are offering continuous live coverage of the disaster with no commercial interruptions.

Eyewitnesses have told mass media “something didn’t feel right” immediately before the derailment, which resulted in a locomotive and rolling stock tumbling from the elevated guideway onto the southbound lanes of Interstate 5 below.

There is speculation that the train may have been going too fast, or that there was an obstruction on the tracks, but at this point we simply don’t have the facts we need to determine what happened and why. What we do know is that three people are dead, of the seventy-eight passengers on board and five crew, and that I-5’s southbound lanes will be shut down for an indefinite period of time.

Nearly all of those passengers who survived the derailment suffered injuries. The injured were taken to St. Joseph Medical Center, St. Clare Hospital in Lakewood, St. Anthony Hospital in Gig Harbor and Tacoma General Hospital.

We will have more information about this tragedy as it develops. The News Tribune of Tacoma has the best coverage so far of the disaster. Here are a few of their thoughtfully reported stories in case you’d like to read further:

EVENING UPDATE: The NTSB has arrived on scene to start their investigation. Floodlights have been set up to illuminate the disaster zone. Heavy machinery has been moved into a staging location on the interstate to extract the damaged, gutted rolling stock that is dangling from the overpass or sitting on the roadway. I-5 South is expected to remain closed through tomorrow morning’s commute.