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)

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.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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