The Washington State Department of Transportation affirmed Tuesday its commitment to carry passenger trains on a recently completed bypass that was the site of Monday’s deadly derailment.
Janet Matkin, spokeswoman for WSDOT’s rail division, said officials are confident a refurbished 14.5-mile section of track known as the Point Defiance bypass will begin operating in due time, once the investigation into Monday’s accident is complete.
“We’ve put in a lot of great improvements,” Matkin said. “All new rail, all new ties, all new ballasts.”
The section of track where Amtrak Cascades Train 501 toppled from its tracks was actually a brand new corridor for passenger travel on refurbished freight rail tracks, made possible by part of nearly $800 million in federal cash used to enhance service between Seattle and Portland, Ore., over the past decade.
Monday’s inaugural journey aimed to usher in a new, improved era of passenger train travel in the Pacific Northwest. It would cut minutes off the overall journey between Seattle and Portland in part by cutting out a meandering and often congested section of track along the waters of Puget Sound and rerouting the trains to urban areas along Interstate 5.
“It was a win-win,” according to Gus Melonas, a spokesman for BNSF Railway, which owns much of the track upon which Amtrak relies between Oregon and Washington’s largest cities. “The new bypass takes trains off the waterfront and allows BNSF more consistent service for its customers.”
Those rails haul the equivalent of 9,000 truckloads of goods daily, Melonas said, to include more than 60 “movements” of trains each day. That includes Amtrak Cascades’ recently bolstered service of 12 trains a day between Seattle and Portland.
“By all accounts, the goal of the new route was to separate freight and passenger traffic, which would enable more frequent and reliable service,” said Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., who praised the efforts of responders and bystanders involved in the train crash.
Kilmer last week helped cut the ribbon on Amtrak’s new Freighthouse Square station, within his district, which the new $181 million bypass traverses. But the movement to create the new tracks predates Kilmer’s first election to Congress in 2012.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 — far better known as the Stimulus signed into law by then-new president Barack Obama, including federal cash for “high speed” rail networks throughout the country. The Pacific Northwest’s portion of almost $800 million revamped stations and safety signaling, built new locomotives and ultimately aimed to help passenger travel coexist on a freight railway — all while traveling up to about 80 mph.
Development of the Point Defiance Bypass, though, was not without controversy. Don Anderson, the mayor of Lakewood, which the new bypass travels through, expressed concern earlier this month about trains traveling through his city at high speeds where drivers and pedestrians would cross.
“It’s virtually inevitable that someone is going to get killed that wouldn’t be killed otherwise,” Anderson said during a city council meeting. “And this is unacceptable.”
But the crash occurred in DuPont, south of Lakewood and near a national wildlife refuge and wider greenbelt between Olympia and Tacoma. Those statements by the mayor “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,” the city of Lakewood said in a statement Tuesday.
There was also sadness about the passenger route leaving Point Defiance near Tacoma’s shoreline, which offered picturesque views of the Olympic Mountains, local islands and peninsulas and wildlife.
“I know people who took the train, just for that feature,” said Derek Young, a member of the Pierce County Council whose district includes Point Defiance. “It seemed a special treat.”
Amtrak has resumed service on the old Point Defiance route for now, while the National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating that initial train trip on the bypass. But WSDOT affirmed it will continue using the new tracks once the investigation is complete and does not believe they were a factor in the crash.
“They’re going to have to go along way to convince us,” said Mike Courts, mayor of DuPont, which also has new railroad crossings along the bypass route.
Questions remain as to why the train was going about 80 mph around a curve in a 30 mph zone when it derailed, sending 13 cars off their tracks and killing three people. Interstate 5, which the new passenger tracks crosses over along an older freight rail trestle, remains closed in its southbound lanes.
“We’ve gotta get this right,” Gov. Jay Inslee said of the investigation at a press conference Tuesday. “We’ve gotta make sure what happened here never happens again.”