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NTSB: Poor track conditions led to deadly Amtrak derailment in Montana

Amtrak train derailment along Hi-Line
Posted at 8:21 AM, Jul 28, 2023
and last updated 2023-07-28 10:22:19-04

New details have been released about the Amtrak train derailment along the Montana Hi-Line in September 2021.

The National Transportation Safety Board says poor track conditions lead to the derailment near the town of Joplin.

NTSB investigators say a combination of factors - including worn rail, vertical track deflection, subgrade instability, and track misalignment - led to the derailment of Amtrak’s westbound Empire Builder train on Sept. 25, 2021.

There were 154 passengers on board when the westbound Empire Builder derailed. Three people - Donald Varnadoe, Marjorie Varnadoe, and Zack Schneider - died in the crash and more than 44 people were injured.

Amtrak train derails along Montana's Hi-Line

The NTSB said in a news release:

Worn rail needs to be replaced before the flange of a train wheel contacts the top of a rail joint bar. Excessive wheel flange contact can lead to increased wear and tear on the wheel and rail. Established rail wear limit regulations would have required replacement of the worn rail before wheel flanges contacted a four-bolt joint bar, investigators said.

NTSB investigators also noted walking inspections are important to ensure an understanding of track conditions and that the track inspector’s workload likely prevented him from performing a timely walking inspection of the track in the area of the derailment. BNSF Railway’s lack of management of workloads for safety-related employees indicates a shortcoming in its safety culture.

Contributing to the severity of the injuries was the failure of some windows to stay in place when cars rolled over during the derailment sequence. Performance standards for window retention systems are needed to prevent passenger ejections. Investigators also found that the use of compartmentalization in Amtrak’s passenger railcars did not adequately protect passengers from injury during the derailment.

The train, consisting of two locomotives and 10 cars, derailed during a right-hand curve on BNSF railway main track.

As a result of this investigation, NTSB issued three new safety recommendations to the Federal Railroad Administration, one to all Class I and intercity railroads and two to BNSF Railway.

The recommendations address safety issues including limitations of track inspection practices, autonomous monitoring system, and treatment of maintenance rails installed.

The NTSB also reiterated recommendations that address retention of passenger windows in railcars and the adequacy of compartmentalization in railcars. Click here to read the complete report.