JOPLIN, Mont. (AP) – An Amtrak train that derailed in the Montana countryside over the weekend was passing just below the speed limit at about 75 mph (121 km / h) as it pulled out of the track along ‘a gradual curve, killing three people and possibly ejecting passengers, the United States said on Monday.

Investigators do not know the cause of the crash, but they are studying video of the train and another locomotive that traveled the same track just over an hour earlier, said Bruce Landsberg, vice president of the National Transportation Safety Board. The derailed train also had a black box that records everything that happens on the train, he said.

“We have experts studying the camera images frame by frame to make sure we’re seeing exactly what the engineer saw – or maybe didn’t see,” Landsberg said.

The train derailed before a line switch, where one set of tracks turned into two, on a stretch of track that had been inspected two days earlier, he said.

West direction empire builder was traveling from Chicago to Seattle when he left the track on Saturday afternoon near Joplin, a town of about 200 residents. The train, carrying 141 passengers and 16 crew members, had two locomotives and 10 cars, eight of which derailed, some of which tipped over on their sides.

Asked about the wooden sleepers that were seen along the side of the tracks, and if there was a recent interview on this section, Landsberg did not respond directly.

“This will be one of the questions that we will look at,” he said. “Maintenance will be a very big concern for us. We don’t know, at this point, exactly what happened, if it was a track problem, if it was a mechanical problem with the train. So all of these things are open.

He said a preliminary report on the derailment is expected within 30 days.

Dale Fossen, one of the many Joplin residents who came to the scene to help, said the railroad tracks ended up being mutilated.

“You could see the tracks looked like a pretzel, they were really twisted,” Fossen said.

Investigators will look at “everything,” including the switch, wheels, axles and suspension systems, as well as the geometry and condition of the track, including cracks, said Steven Ditmeyer, rail consultant and former senior official of the Federal Railroad Administration. He said a switch like Joplin’s would be controlled by the BNSF Railroad Control Center in Fort Worth, Texas.

Sometimes railway lines can be warped by heat, creating loops in the tracks known as sun folds, Ditmeyer said. This was the cause of a derailment in northern Montana in August 1988, when an Empire Builder train deviated from the tracks about 170 miles (274 kilometers) east in the small town of Saco.

The NTSB concluded that an inspection failed to detect a problem with the track, and officials did not warn trains to slow down on that stretch. The team saw that the track had changed, but that the train was traveling at full speed and could not stop before derailing.

Temperatures were in the 80s on Saturday near Joplin, according to the National Weather Service.

Russ Quimby, a former train crash investigator for the NTSB, said the heat is the most likely explanation. He is convinced because the locomotives in front did not derail, but eight lighter coach cars behind them did.

“It also has all the characteristics of a track loop,” Quimby said. “Sometimes a locomotive, which is heavier, will pass through ‘a crooked track,’ but the cars following will not. You saw it in that accident, ”he said.

A switch malfunction appears less likely, Quimby said, as the switch was reportedly inspected during the runway check last week.

Another possibility was a fault in the rail, said rail safety expert David Clarke, director of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Tennessee. He noted that regular testing does not always detect such problems.

Speed ​​was not a likely factor as trains on this line are fitted with systems that prevent excessive speeds and collisions, which appears to have worked in this case, Clarke said.

“Did the switch play a role? It could be that the front of the train struck the switch and started to fishtail and the rear end of the train tipped over, ”said Clarke.

The derailment occurred approximately 150 miles (241 kilometers) northeast of the capital Helena and approximately 30 miles (48 kilometers) from the Canadian border. The tracks crossed vast fields of recently harvested golden brown wheat and roughly parallel to US Highway 2.

Allan Zarembski, director of the University of Delaware’s railway engineering and safety program, said he did not want to speculate but suspected the derailment was due to a problem with the track, the train’s equipment or the of them.

Railways have “virtually eliminated” major derailments by human error after implementing a nationwide system called positive train control, designed to stop trains before a crash, Zarembski said.

The derailment comes as Congress works to finalize passage of a $ 1 trillion, two-party infrastructure package that includes $ 66 billion to improve Amtrak service. That’s less than the $ 80 billion originally demanded by President Joe Biden – who drove Amtrak from Delaware to Washington while in the Senate – but it would be the biggest federal investment in passenger rail service since Amtrak was founded 50 years ago.

Most of the money would go to repairs and upgrades along the congested 457-mile (735-kilometer) northeast corridor of rail service as well as intercity routes with higher commuter traffic. About $ 16 billion is also aimed at expanding Amtrak’s national service to America at large, particularly to rural areas.

Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn said the company was working with the NTSB, Federal Railroad Administration and local law enforcement and shared their “sense of urgency” to determine what happened in Montana.

Landsberg, vice chairman of the NTSB, said security officials hope to complete their investigation as soon as possible so that the BNSF can fix the rails, which are a key line for freight traffic. He noted that trains are backed up on both sides of the crash site.

“We are sensitive to the fact that the railroad is an essential lifeblood and we want to move goods and services,” he said.



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