WASHINGTON — Amtrak’s Empire Builder ran through a track misalignment in a curve — distinctly visible in a still from the lead locomotive’s onboard camera — just before its September 2021 derailment in Joplin, Mont., according to information contained in more than 3,100 pages of documents released Tuesday by the National Transportation Safety Board.
The documents form the public docket for the investigation of the Sept. 25, 2021, accident that killed three people and injured 49 others. That docket includes almost 800 pages of interviews with passengers, and more than 300 pages with the train’s crew, along with technical documents on track, equipment, signals, and other aspects of the crash.
The NTSB has yet to complete its final accident report, which will indicate the cause, and cautions in a press release that “no conclusions about how or why the derailment happened should be drawn from the information within the docket. The NTSB will issue a final report at a later date that will include analysis, findings, recommendations, and probable cause determinations related to the derailment.”
However, information about the track defect appears throughout reports included in the docket.
A report from the investigation’s operations group notes that the misalignment in question was visible in a review of video from two freight trains that passed through the location prior to the Empire Builder. The group then reviewed the video from the Empire Builder “approaching the area of the track deviation and when it became visible, it was apparent that the defect had gotten worse. While passing over the area, Amtrak No. 7 shook laterally to the right (north), then left (south), then right again. The train began to slow and eventually stop.”
A report on the Amtrak locomotive’s in-cab video shows that just 15 seconds after the train passed over the misaligned track, the train’s brakes were in emergency; 14 seconds later, it had come to a stop.
Another document, by the investigation’s human performance group, reports that neither crew of the preceding freight trains “noticed the misalignment or detected any unusual train movements while operating over the track defect.” The Amtrak engineer did also not see the misalignment, the report notes, while investigators, “who watched the video and were focused primarily on detecting the track deviation, were able to first see the misalignment only a couple seconds before the trains had traveled over it.”
In an interview conducted by investigators two day after the derailment, the train’s engineer said he had just sounded his horn for a private grade crossing, checked a signal, and checked his speed. “Once I did that, I looked back up,” he said. “I felt a big jerk to the right and then another jerk to the left, and then another jerk to the right. And then the accordion action started. Then the train went into emergency.”
Other information in the docket includes a crashworthiness assessment of the train’s Superliner equipment, which breaks down where injuries occurred. It reports that four passengers were ejected from the train’s lounge car, while two others are believed to have been in the vestibule area between the lounge and a trailing coach at the time of the accident and were likely ejected when the cars uncoupled. Those two and one of the other passengers ejected accounted for the three fatalities.
— Updated at 7 a.m. to include comments from engineer’s interview.