An Amtrak train derailed off of an overpass in the state of Washington, killing at least three people and injuring dozens of others.
Inaugural Run of New Amtrak Line
On the morning of December 18, 2017, Amtrak Train No. 501 was making the inaugural run of a new train service from Seattle to Portland. At 7:33 a.m., about midway between Tacoma and Olympia, WA, all twelve of the train’s coaches and one of its two engines derailed off of an overpass onto the southbound lanes of Interstate 5. Five vehicles were heavily damaged on the highway below, including two semi-trailers.
At least three people were killed and approximately 100 others were injured, according to officials. The train was reportedly carrying seven crew members and 77 passengers.
50 M.P.H. Over the Speed Limit
According to a spokesperson for the National Transportation Safety Board, the train had been traveling at an estimated 80 miles per hour when it derailed, approximately 50 miles per hour over the speed limit at the curve. The spokesperson also stated that it was still unclear why the train was traveling so rapidly or whether the train operator’s unfamiliarity with the newly created route had caused the derailment.
Multiple Entities Involved
The tracks off of which the Amtrak train derailed had been recently constructed as part of an infrastructure investment program. Backed by the Washington state government, a regional transit agency had used $180 million from the federal government’s 2009 stimulus package to buy a 14.5-mile stretch of track and upgrade it for faster passenger service as part of the Point Defiance Bypass project. Previously, passenger trains traveling on the line, known as the Amtrak Cascades service, used a more roundabout route shared with freight trains.
The Cascades service is owned by the states of Washington and Oregon and operated by Amtrak, but the Point Defiance Bypass track is owned by Sound Transit and dispatched by BNSF, the freight company that previously owned the line, so multiple entities have overlapping responsibilities for this train route.
Amount of Recovery Capped by Law
While the total cost of the injuries and deaths sustained has not been determined yet, the maximum amount that the injured passengers can recover is likely known: $295 million.
In 1997, the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act set a $200 million maximum limit for the “allowable awards to all rail passengers, against all defendants, for all claims, including claims for punitive damages, arising from a single accident.”
That means that the maximum amount of money that all the injured parties combined could have recovered from all the defendants combined in a train accident was set at $200 million. And while $200 million may have sounded like a lot of money, in later train accidents with multiple injured or deceased parties, the total amount owed for compensation sometimes far exceeded it.
For example, the 2008 Metrolink crash near Chatsworth, CA left over 100 injured and 24 dead. The judge tasked with allocating the funds among the victims estimated that the total value of the accident could potentially have been larger than $350 million if each individual case had gone to trial.
Congress has since intervened to overcome this cap. In May 2015, Amtrak Train No. 188 derailed in Philadelphia after traveling more than 100 miles per hour on an area of track with a speed limit of only 50 miles per hour. Eight passengers were killed and others were seriously injured. All of the injured parties’ claims were initially subject to the combined $200 million damages cap.
Later that year, however, Congress passed the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, which increased the maximum award to $295 million. The $295 million cap remains in place for the derailment in Washington, unless Congress passes another law raising it.