Investigators probe deadly Amtrak Empire Builder derailment in Montana

Workers at the scene of a train derailment
Investigative and cleanup work is underway Sunday where an Amtrak train derailed the previous day just west of Joplin, Mont., killing three people. The westbound Empire Builder was heading from Chicago and St. Paul to Seattle, with two locomotives and 10 cars.
Ted S. Warren | AP

Updated: 6:45 p.m.

A team of investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board spent Sunday at the site of an Amtrak derailment in north-central Montana that killed three people and left seven hospitalized, officials said.

The westbound Empire Builder was en route from Chicago and St. Paul to Seattle when it left the tracks about 4 p.m. Saturday near Joplin, a town of about 200.

The train was carrying about 141 passengers and 16 crew members and had two locomotives and 10 cars, eight of which derailed, Amtrak spokesman Jason Abrams said. The westbound Empire Builder originates in Chicago and makes several stops in Minnesota, including in St. Paul, as well as in Fargo and Grand Forks, N.D.

A 14-member team including investigators and specialists in railroad signals would look into the cause of the derailment on a BNSF Railway main track that involved no other trains or equipment, said NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss.

Aerial view of a derailed train
This aerial view taken Sunday shows part of an Amtrak train that derailed in north-central Montana the previous day, leaving three people dead and others hospitalized.
Larry Mayer | Billings Gazette via AP

Law enforcement said the officials from the NTSB, Amtrak and BNSF had arrived at the accident scene just west of Joplin, where the tracks cut through vast, golden brown wheat fields that were recently harvested. Several large cranes were brought to the tracks that run roughly parallel to U.S. Highway 2, along with a truckload of gravel and new railroad ties.

Several rail cars could still be seen on their sides.

The derailment scene is about 150 miles northeast of Helena and about 30 miles from the Canadian border.

Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn expressed condolences to those who lost loved ones and said the company is working with the NTSB, Federal Railroad Administration and local law enforcement, sharing their “sense of urgency” to determine what happened.

“However, until the investigation is complete, we will not comment further on the accident itself," Flynn said in the statement. "The NTSB will identify the cause or causes of this accident, and Amtrak commits to taking appropriate actions to prevent a similar accident in the future.”

Crews respond to the scene of a train derailment
Rescuers work at the scene of an Amtrak train derailment on Saturday in north-central Montana.
Kimberly Fossen via AP

Railroad safety expert David Clarke, director of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Tennessee, said accident scene photos show the derailment occurred at or near a switch, which is where the railway goes from a single track to a double track.

Clarke said the two locomotives and two cars at the front of the train reached the split and continued on the main track, but the remaining eight cars derailed. He said it was unclear if some of the last cars moved onto the second track.

“Did the switch play some role? It might have been that the front of the train hit the switch and it started fish-tailing and that flipped the back part of the train,” Clarke said.

Another possibility was a defect in the rail, Clarke said, noting that regular testing doesn't always catch such problems. He said speed was not a likely factor because trains on that line have systems that prevent excessive speeds and collisions.

Matt Jones, a BNSF Railway spokesman, said at a news conference that the track where the accident occurred was last inspected Thursday.

Amtrak said that because of the derailment, the westbound Empire Builder will terminate in the Twin Cities through at least Tuesday, and the eastbound Empire Builder trains will originate in the Twin Cities. Amtrak says passengers scheduled to travel on the Empire Builder through Tuesday can call (800) 872-7245 for more information.

Crews respond to the scene of a train derailment
Emergency crews respond to the scene of an Amtrak train derailment on Saturday in north-central Montana.
Kimberly Fossen via AP

Most of those on the train were treated and released for their injuries, but five who were more seriously hurt remained at the Benefis Health System hospital in Great Falls, Montana, on Sunday, said Sarah Robbin, Liberty County emergency services coordinator. Two were in the intensive care unit, a hospital spokeswoman said.

Another two people were at Logan Health, a hospital in Kalispell, Montana, spokeswoman Melody Sharpton said.

Robbin said emergency crews struggled without success to cut open cars with special tools, "so they did have to manually carry out many of the passengers that could not walk.”

Liberty County Sheriff Nick Erickson said the names of the dead would not be released until relatives are notified.

Robbin said nearby residents rushed to offer help when the derailment occurred.

“We are so fortunate to live where we do, where neighbors help neighbors,” she said.

“The locals have been so amazing and accommodating,” passenger Jacob Cordeiro said on Twitter. “They provided us with food, drinks, and wonderful hospitality. Nothing like it when the best comes together after a tragedy.”

Chester Councilwoman Rachel Ghekiere said she and others helped about 50 to 60 passengers who were brought to a school.

“I went to the school and assisted with water, food, wiping dirt off faces,” she said. “They appeared to be tired, shaken but happy that they were where they were. Some looked more disheveled than others, depending where they were on the train.”

A grocery store in Chester, about 5 miles from the derailment, and a nearby religious community provided food, she said.

The passengers were taken by buses to hotels in nearby Shelby, said Ghekiere, whose husband works for the local emergency services agency and was alerted to the crash.

Allan Zarembski, director of the University of Delaware’s Railway Engineering and Safety Program, said he didn’t want to speculate but suspected the derailment stemmed from an issue with the train track, equipment, or both.

Railways have “virtually eliminated” major derailments by human error after the implementation of positive train control nationwide, Zarembski said. He said NTSB findings could take months.

Bob Chipkevich, who oversaw railroad crash investigations for several years at the NTSB, said the agency won’t rule out human error or any other potential causes for now.

“There are still human performance issues examined by NTSB to be sure that people doing the work are qualified and rested and doing it properly,” Chipkevich said.

Chipkevich said track conditions have historically been a significant cause of train accidents. He noted most of the track Amtrak uses is owned by freight railroads, and it must depend on those companies for safety maintenance.

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