NTSB says ‘poor track conditions’ led to fatal Amtrak derailment

The National Transportation Safety Board announced that “poor” track conditions led to an Amtrak derailment near Joplin in September 2021, resulting in more injuries and three fatalities.

On September 25, 2021, the Empire Builder, a westbound Amtrak train that connects Seattle and Portland with Chicago, derailed near a curve in Joplin while traveling at a speed below the posted limit of two miles per hour. The derailment occurred on a section of track owned by BNSF Railway and operated by the Builder.

The westbound Amtrak train arrived at approximately 4 p.M., Moving about 2.9 inches. Footage from previous three trains and onboard cameras facing outward revealed that the track was slowly being knocked out of alignment throughout the course of the day. According to the NTSB report, one Amtrak passenger train and 11 other trains, including 10 BNSF freight trains, had traveled over the same stretch of track on the same day.

Investigators from the NTSB observed that the track was moving more than it should have been, even after the rail line had been reopened and repaired following the derailment. They discovered that the foundation soil and rock were unstable, causing the track’s subgrade to be unstable as well. Additionally, they found that the joint bar connecting two sections of rail was likely to be hit by the wheels’ flange, which was worn down. It was also discovered that the track section where the rail was located had other issues, not just at that particular location.

The investigators wrote that the long history of derailments is caused by a combination of factors, and the federal government is encouraged to come up with new standards to prevent future derailments. In fact, none of the individual defects violated the safety measures set by the Federal Railroad Administration. The NTSB found that it was not a single issue that caused the derailment, but rather a combination of factors.

The accident report once again reiterated its recommendation for the board to encourage the use of autonomous track monitoring equipment, which the NTSB has noticed may notify the railroad of any problems with the track conditions deteriorating. Investigators said that if all trains passing through the area were outfitted with this type of monitoring track, the derailment could have been noticed before the two-day stretch of specific track was inspected. However, investigators said it was unlikely that the regular track inspections regimen would have caught the defects that led to the BNSF accident, as the conditions of the track had deteriorated by the day of the accident. Given this information, it is not required by law for the railroad to regularly inspect the tracks twice a week.

BNSF also recommended that more be done to stabilize the subgrade beneath the track in Joplin. The NTSB recommended that the worn piece of rail must be replaced before the government can come up with new standards regarding how to inspect autonomous equipment.

NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy stated in a press release that there is no replacement for thorough track inspection procedures, which can avert derailments by detecting track conditions that may worsen as time goes on. I urge track proprietors, who hold the responsibility for the safety of their routes, to guarantee that inspectors are provided with adequate time, assistance, and resources to carry out their duties, which are crucial for ensuring rail safety. This unfortunate event serves as a compelling reminder.

The NTSB is still reviewing the statement, which states that locomotives are autonomously installed on the equipment inspection track, including the beginning, and it is already making improvements to its infrastructure, as reported by the Press Free Montana.

“According to spokesperson Lena Kent, we are fully committed to ensuring safety across our system, although we haven’t had the opportunity to fully review the findings yet.”

Amtrak officials stated that they were also examining the report on Thursday.

Magliari Marc, the spokesperson, stated, “Amtrak will continue to work with all stakeholders to enhance public rail safety. Amtrak appreciates the opportunity to review the recommendations and participate in the investigation.”

The final report from the NTSB has revealed that the nation’s rail system has faced increased scrutiny in recent weeks due to a series of derailments. In June, another train operated by BNSF derailed near Hot Springs, Montana, causing a bridge to collapse and spilling asphalt into the Yellowstone River near Point Reed. Similarly, in April, a BNSF train operated by Link Rail derailed near Quinn’s Hot Springs, Montana, resulting in cases of beer spilling into Clark Fork. These incidents occurred approximately 50 miles east of Havre, and have brought attention to the safety of the railway tracks near the area.