Washington train derailment ‘could’ve been avoided,’ local mayor says

The mayor of a city along a new route taken by the Amtrak train that derailed in Washington state had expressed concerns about the line as long ago as 2013, court records show.

Don Anderson, mayor of Lakewood, about 11 miles northeast of the crash site, said shortly after the wreck that the tragedy “could’ve been avoided if better choices had been made” about using the route for upgraded passenger service.

The Amtrak Cascades 501 train derailed Monday morning near DuPont, Washington, killing at least three people and injuring more than 100. It was traveling the inaugural service on the new route, which was designed to shave 10 minutes off the commute between Portland and Seattle.

“Our community was skeptical of the project both from a financial and safety standpoint, primarily a safety standpoint,” Anderson said Monday.

Bypass project aims to cut commutes

In March 2010, money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was set aside for high-speed rail initiatives. Hundreds of millions of dollars was granted to the Cascades High Speed Rail Capital Program between Seattle and Portland to improve train speeds between the two cities. Part of that effort included the Point Defiance Bypass Project.

The aim was to reroute passenger trains to avoid curves and single-track tunnels on the route along Puget Sound. Instead of running along the congested and windy coastline track, trains would run on an existing, inland line following Interstate 5.

The bypass would allow speeds to be increased up to 79 mph, cutting journey times between Portland and Seattle, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) said.

When it derailed Monday, the train was traveling 80 mph in a 30-mph zone, the NTSB said.

City sues over rail project

Lakewood sued WSDOT in 2013, saying, in part, that the upgrade project had not “undergone sufficient environmental review,” according to court documents. The city’s suit was dismissed in 2014, court documents show.

“Our community was concerned about the safety of a high-speed passenger rail line coming through an urbanized area on what had been, for years, essentially an abandoned rail route,” Anderson told CNN after the derailment.

The train was running on track previously used for occasional freight and military transport, WSDOT said in a news release. That raised safety concerns, Anderson said.

“The principal risk we identified was actually the number of crossings and the lack of familiarity people had in the area with trains,” Anderson told The Seattle Times on Monday. “We thought a train-vehicle collision was virtually inevitable.”

The train apparently ran off the track as it came out of a curve while approaching or crossing an open trestle over I-5 near a federal wildlife refuge.

Prior to Monday’s inaugural ride, WSDOT had conducted weeks of inspection and testing, the agency said. WSDOT did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment about Anderson’s remarks.

‘Only a matter of time’

Anderson again raised safety concerns about the rail line earlier this month, as the opening date for the service approached. At a town meeting early this month, he said it was only a matter of time before the high-speed trains killed someone, and he asked for more safety improvements.

“Come back when there is that accident, and try to justify not putting in those safety enhancements, or you can go back now and advocate for the money to do it, because this project was never needed and endangers our citizens,” he said, according to CNN affiliate KOMO.

On Tuesday, a spokeswoman for Lakewood, Brynn Grimley, released a statement from the city that said the mayor was voicing his concern at that town meeting about seven railroad crossings within the town limits and not the accident site.

“His comments focused on the city’s concern that there are not enough safety precautions in place to protect pedestrian and vehicle traffic around the railroad crossings in Lakewood,” the city’s statement says. “This in no way was intended to predict what happened in DuPont, nor was the Mayor speaking about the possibility of a train derailment outside city limits.”

Lakewood is several miles from DuPont.

The mayor told CNN he found out about Monday’s derailment when he got a call from the city manager, who had gotten a report from the police chief.

“At first, I thought his comment that Amtrak had derailed was speaking figuratively about not opening on time,” Anderson said. “He repeated and assured me that was not figurative, that was literal.”