News coverage of the horrific Amtrak train crash near DuPont, Washington, this week sent chills through me as I recalled my own experience in an Amtrak wreck in southern California. What I learned then about passenger-train safety was shocking and continues to shock me today.
In 2005, our Amtrak train was running along the Pacific coast in the late afternoon. We were enjoying the smooth ride while a gorgeous sunset played over the Pacific Ocean outside our windows. I was talking on the phone to my daughter in San Diego, the train’s destination.
Suddenly, a tremendous crash and violent shaking ran through the train. We had hit an asphalt truck that was stalled on the track. Screaming passengers were thrown around like dice.
The gambling analogy is apt because those people whose seats faced other occupied seats were hurled into each other with head-cracking speed. As luck or providence would have it, I was riding backward by myself in a four-seat group. After the crash, I found myself on the floor, having been slammed into the empty facing seat. The top of my head was killing me.
This question sprang to mind: Why no seat belts on this train? They’re required in cars. And planes. But not trains?
Apparently, no safety officials at Amtrak have been asked that question or, if they have, they’ve not troubled themselves to fix the obvious safety problem.
The reports coming out of the Washington crash indicate that in addition to the tragic deaths, the human damage will be vast and devastating — severe head and spinal injuries, broken bones and more. Could seat belts have mitigated some of these injuries or even saved lives? I believe they could have, just as they could have in “my” crash in which 19 people were taken to the hospital.
Certainly, a seat belt cannot save you if the train car is crushed, just as it cannot in a similar automobile crash. But seat belts in cars have saved many lives and prevented harm, even in dire situations.
Why wouldn’t this work in trains as well? Especially in high-speed trains that have higher risks of serious injury in a crash than their slower counterparts?
Other safety issues that faced us in that California crash were locked doors and the seeming unconcern of Amtrak employees for their bewildered, frightened passengers. After our collision with the truck and then regaining our senses, we tried to open the doors to our car so we could escape. A strange odor wafted in following the crash, making us nervous and more than a little anxious to get out. Much to our dismay and anger, we found all the doors securely locked with no way to open them.
We removed the emergency windows, preparing to jump. But the train was on a 4- to 5-foot-high bed that was covered with huge boulders. Leaping from the windows would have certainly caused us broken bones or other injuries. We were stuck.
Many of the passengers on the Tacoma-to-Olympia train would not have had the option of escaping through the windows because the damage was so extreme. Thirteen of the 14 cars derailed on an overpass, with several of them raining down on automobiles and trucks passing on the interstate below. First responders used the Jaws of Life and other tools to free victims.
In our case, the derailment of the train was minor. Once the initial shock passed, we simply sat and waited almost an hour for the first responders to get to our car, open a door and help us out. Of course, we were all grateful to see those firemen in their neon yellow uniforms.
During the time that we waited for help, we saw only one Amtrak official — an employee who rushed through to check on a colleague. She wouldn’t answer our questions or tell us how to get the doors open. And she didn’t return to our car again.
I can only hope that the Amtrak employees on the Cascades 501 train on Monday took better care of their hurting and scared passengers. And we can only hope that Amtrak fixes its safety deficiencies, including installing seat belts.
Texas officials are considering a bullet train that would run in excess of 200 miles per hour between Dallas and Houston. It’s a great idea for getting people quickly from one major metropolitan area to another. However, officials would be well advised to examine and address the potential safety issues that face such a high-speed system.