July 10, 2018 / 9:32 PM / 3 months ago

Amtrak engineer called trip 'learning experience' before fatal crash

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Amtrak engineer aboard a speeding passenger train that derailed in Washington state in December called the trip a “learning experience” shortly before it ended in a fatal crash, according to a transcript of onboard communications released on Tuesday.

FILE PHOTO: First responders are at the scene of an Amtrak passenger train which derailed and is hanging from a bridge over the interstate highway (I-5) in DuPont, Washington, U.S., December 18, 2017. REUTERS/Nick Adams

The engineer, Steven Brown, told the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in January he had failed to see signs warning of an impending reduction in the speed limit but tried to brake before the crash that killed three people near Seattle.

“This is a learning experience. I’ve never run this engine before,” Brown told a conductor who was also in the locomotive during the trip, the transcript said.

All 12 cars and one of two engines jumped the tracks at a curve on Dec. 18, sending some cars tumbling from a bridge onto an interstate highway. A total of 70 people were injured.

Amtrak 501 was on its inaugural run on a faster route from Seattle to Portland, Oregon. Six seconds before the derailment, the engineer remarked that it was speeding, and said he then applied the brakes but could not prevent the incident.

The train was traveling at 78 miles (125 km) per hour when it derailed, far above the curve’s 30 mph speed limit.

A lawyer for Brown did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

At an NTSB hearing in Washington on Tuesday, Amtrak Vice President Michael DeCataldo said the railroad was working “to make sure nothing like this happen again” and ensure service only begins “once all safety precautions have been taken.”

DeCataldo said Amtrak has worked to “close the gaps” after the derailment and now has new protocols requiring additional training.

As the train began to derail, Brown said: “we’re dead,” the transcript showed. He did not apply the emergency brake, the NTSB said, and told investigators he did not recall seeing signs posted ahead of the speed-restricted curve.

Asked why he missed the signs, Brown told the NTSB: “The only thing I can think of is that I was possibly quickly looking at a gauge or something.”

Brown, who had worked for Amtrak since 2004, told the NTSB he had classroom training prior to the derailment, but just two days of training onboard.

Brown told the NTSB he had operated the train for just one roundtrip during training prior to the derailment but felt prepared.

The NTSB is holding a two-day hearing on two fatal Amtrak crashes, including the Washington derailment and a February collision involving a CSX Corp freight train in South Carolina.

Reporting by David Shepardson

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