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Derailed Washington train was 'going 80mph in 30mph zone'

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The train that derailed near Tacoma in Washington State on its inaugural trip, killing at least three on board, was traveling almost three times the speed limit of the track it was on, investigators said.

The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said the Amtrak service was traveling 80mph in a 30mph zone when it derailed near Tacoma in Washington State and carriages fell onto a live Interstate highway. 

There were around 80 passengers and five crew members on board. Of the 14 car train, 13 cars derailed and seven vehicles on the road below were struck. Amtrak said it would cooperate with authorities and would not speculate on the cause of the incident. 

The service was the inaugural journey on the line following a $180M (£134M) upgrade of an existing line that allows inter-city Amtrak passenger trains to bypass the city of Tacoma, the culmination of the “20-project Cascades High-Speed Rail construction program”. Despite the name, line speeds are not high speed by European standards.

The design speed for the upgraded route is 79mph, but the train was approaching a curve which had a lower speed limit when it derailed at around 7.30am local time on Monday. The route is equipped for positive train control (PTC) safety systems, which warn the driver of speed limits using GPS. The system is supposed to apply the brakes if warnings are ignored, but the technology is not yet in use in that area, the BBC reported.

The upgrade programme, funded by the Washington State Department of Transportation’s (WSDOT’s) high-speed rail construction programme through the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, was designed to “improve track quality, eliminate track defects, and upgrade wayside horns along the corridor to direct audible warnings to cars and pedestrians at railroad crossings”, according to the department’s publicity material. “Electronic upgrades will help prevent signal failures and set the stage for 21st century train control technology,” it adds.

WSDOT said the tracks are owned by Sound Transit. It said the tracks were previously owned by BNSF and were used for occasional freight and military transport.

A statement released yesterday said: “Today was the first day of public use of the tracks, after weeks of inspection and testing.”

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