The engineer of the Amtrak Cascades train missed seeing a speed-limit sign before the train derailed from an overpass in Washington state last month, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) announced yesterday.
The passenger train carrying 83 passengers and crew was traveling almost 80 miles an hour when it went off the tracks on a curve where the speed limit was 30 miles an hour, landing on an interstate below.
Investigators were unable to interview the engineer, a 55-year-old male, until mid-January due to the seriousness of his injuries.
The engineer said that he did not feel that having the qualifying conductor on board caused any distractions and said that he would not have gotten "behind the throttle" of the train if he had concerns about his own readiness.
When he approached the 19.8 milepost - where the sharp bend is located - he "mistook" another sign, but applied the train's brakes "as soon as he saw the 30 miles per hour sigh at the start of the curve".
He said he applied the brake as soon as he saw a 30 miles per hour sign at the start of the curve, but the train derailed seconds later as it entered the 30 miles per hour zone and plunged off an overpass and onto busy Interstate 5- the Pacific Northwest's main north-south highway.
According to the NTSB, the 55-year-old engineer recalled that as the train passed milepost 15.5 it was traveling about 79 miles per hour.
The engineer completed seven to 10 "observational trips" in a locomotive on the new stretch of track in the five weeks prior to the derailment, the NTSB said.
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Two of those trips were driving northbound, the NTSB said.
The two had never worked together before.
The engineer also told investigators that he was not distracted by the qualifying conductor with him in the train, and that he felt well rested before his shift. The conductor said he heard the engineer mumble something, and when he looked up, he sensed the train becoming airborne.
The NTSB said it conducted the interviews last week, almost one month after the crash, due to the injuries the two individuals sustained in the derailment.
Officials did not identify the engineer, but said he had been hired by Amtrak in 2004 as a conductor and promoted to locomotive engineer in 2013.
The second man in the locomotive, training to qualify for the route, told investigators that he was studying paperwork just before the crash.
The National Transportation and Safety Board previously released details from the incident collected from the train's event data recorder and cameras.
The investigation is expected to last 12 to 24 months, NTSB officials said.