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Cause of Montana Amtrak derailment still under investigation

A preliminary report on an Amtrak train derailment in north-central Montana last month that killed three people and injured dozens more provides no information on the cause of the accident

HELENA, Mont. — A preliminary report on an Amtrak train derailment in north-central Montana last month that killed three people and injured dozens more gave no information on the cause of the accident, but said the train’s emergency brakes were activated and that Amtrak estimated the damage at more than $22 million.

The National Transportation Safety Board’s report issued Tuesday said the westbound Empire Builder was carrying 154 people when it derailed on Sept. 25 just west of Joplin, Montana. Forty-four passengers and crew were taken to local hospitals with injuries, the report said.

The train was traveling at between 75 and 78 mph (121 and 125 kph), just below the speed limit of 79 mph (127 kph) on that section of track, when its emergency brakes were activated, the report said. The two locomotives and two railcars remained on the rails and eight cars derailed.

NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway said Tuesday it was “still very early” in the investigation and the agency typically takes one to two years to determine accident causes.

“We are looking at everything,” he said.

Rail experts have said the crash could have been caused by problems with the railroad or track, such as a rail that buckled under high heat, or the track itself giving way when the train passed over.

But they said investigators would consider all possibilities, including potential problems with the Empire Builder’s wheels or suspension system. Investigators also were examining if passengers were ejected from the train during the crash.

The investigation includes an examination of onboard video from the Amtrak train and from a freight train that had gone through the derailment area a little over an hour earlier, the NTSB has said.

“We have experts that are studying the camera footage frame by frame to make sure that we see exactly what the engineer saw — or maybe didn’t see,” NTSB Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg said two days after the crash.

The derailed train also had a black box that records everything happening on the train, Landsberg said.

As the investigation continues, it will focus on track and engineering, equipment, survival factors, and passenger railcar crashworthiness, the NTSB said Tuesday.

Survivors described horrific scenes of people being maimed and killed as four cars — including an observation car with large windows — toppled and skidded down the tracks.

Killed in the accident were Margie and Don Vardahoe, a Georgia couple on a cross-country trip to mark their 50th wedding anniversary, and Zachariah Schneider, 28, a software developer from Illinois.

At least two dozen passengers have filed lawsuits over the derailment, including one by Schneider’s wife, Rebecca Schneider. She said in the lawsuit that her husband had left her in the sleeping car and went to sit in the viewing car, where he was “horrifically maimed” and killed. The viewing car was one of four passenger cars that ended up on their sides.

The lawsuits against both Amtrak and BNSF allege negligence for not preventing the derailment. The suits seek damages for injuries and psychological trauma to the people aboard the train.

Amtrak and BNSF have declined to comment on ongoing litigation.

The lawsuits also challenge a mandatory arbitration agreement Amtrak put in effect in January 2019, which attorneys for the victims say denies passengers their constitutional right to a trial by jury if they are injured and sets a maximum of $295 million in damages per incident.

Allan Zarembski, who directs the railroad safety program at the University of Delaware, said the NTSB usually won’t name a cause in a preliminary report unless it’s something obvious.

Zarembski said photos he reviewed from the crash scene didn’t show any obvious problem with the track.

The fact that two locomotives and two cars up front went through without derailing suggests there was a problem with one of the cars that derailed, or possibly a rail broke beneath one of those cars as it passed over, he said.

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Brown reported from Billings, Mont.