U.S., Montana, Amtrak: Beyond The Surface Facts Of The Empire Builder Derailment

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; September 26, 2021

Another grim reminder of how dangerous the railroad business is came on Saturday, September 25th with the derailment of Amtrak’s westbound Empire Builder in Montana. As of Sunday evening, over 50 people were injured and there were three known fatalities. Sixteen crew members and 146 passengers were onboard. As far as is publicly known, no crew members were included in the fatalities.

Here is the public statement from Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn on Sunday:

“We are in mourning today for the people who lost their lives due to the derailment of the Empire Builder train Saturday, near Joplin, Montana, on the BNSF Railway, as well as the many others who were injured. We have no words that can adequately express our sorrow for those who lost a loved one or who were hurt in this horrible event. They are in our thoughts and prayers.

We are fully cooperating with the investigation, working closely with National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Railroad Administration, local law enforcement and response agencies. We share the sense of urgency to understand why the accident happened; however, until the investigation is complete, we will not comment further on the accident itself. The NTSB will identify the cause or causes of this accident, and Amtrak commits to taking appropriate actions to prevent a similar accident in the future.

Amtrak’s immediate and sustained focus is on doing everything we can to help our passengers and crew, especially the families of those who were injured or died, at this painful and difficult time. Our Incident Response Team has been initiated. We have sent emergency personnel and Amtrak leadership to the scene to help support our passengers, our employees and their families with their needs. Individuals with questions about their family and friends aboard this train should call 800-523-9101. We have also established a Family Assistance Center in Great Falls, MT, and we will have family assistance liaisons at that site to reach out to those injured and their families to make sure they get what they need. We have dispatched nurse case managers to support those hospitalized. As soon as Amtrak has permission, we will access the accident site to retrieve the personal effects of our passengers and crew.

We want to extend our deep gratitude and sincere appreciation to the Joplin and greater Liberty County communities and other Montana counties and their selfless first responders, hospital staff and law enforcement for their immediate and ongoing help to support of all those aboard the Empire Builder for responding with such urgency, compassion and patience.

Bill Flynn

Amtrak Chief Executive Officer”

BNSF Railway, the Empire Builder’s host railroad, issued this statement Saturday evening about six hours after the derailment:

“10 p.m. CST, Sept. 25, 2021

BNSF has confirmed that an Amtrak train derailed on BNSF tracks near Joplin, Montana at approximately 4 p.m. local time on Sept. 25, 2021. BNSF is working closely with Amtrak and local authorities and already have personnel on-site. BNSF appreciates the efforts of local first responders who are assisting with this incident. The cause of the incident is under investigation and BNSF will coordinate with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) team.

Our deepest sympathies are with the families of those who lost their lives, as well as the injured. BNSF will provide additional details as they become available.”

Every one of us in the railroad industry, particularly those of us in the passenger railroad business, instantly have a sinking feeling when the first news of a derailment breaks. A dozen questions automatically pop into mind, knowing it will take months before a final report is issued by the proper authorities as to what happened and why it happened.

Every good railroader lives and breathes a safety culture. It’s never uncommon for professional railroaders to end a telephone or in-person conversation by saying “have a safe day.”

Inevitably, within moments of a derailment some begin pointing fingers and attempt to assign fault. Bad track. Bad equipment maintenance. Bad dispatching. Bad training. Mistake by a locomotive engineer. Take your pick – someone will – and then build an imaginary case for their choice.

Before the internet and social media and everyone having a cell phone, news still traveled fast around Amtrak and host railroads when a major derailment occurred. It would often take frustrating hours before good and more complete information was available, especially if you were onboard a long distance/inter-regional train. There was plenty of time for wondering and building false scenarios.

Now, wondering and building false scenarios has been raised to an instant art form thanks to the internet and social media. Still the same result, though. The rumor mill has only been modernized, not improved.

It’s obvious that train and engine crews are well-schooled in safety procedures and when physically able are the ones in charge of a derailment site. What many outsiders and passengers don’t realize is every other Amtrak onboard services employee also has ongoing safety training both for their own benefit and the benefit of passengers. Car attendants, service attendants and chefs all make an instant change from professional OBS employees to safety employees to help each other and passengers.

Amtrak has always had emergency plans in place for derailment and wreck scenarios with an Incident Response Team. As noted by Bill Flynn above, some are trained as quick responders to contact and coordinate with local first responders. Others are trained to be in contact with local telephone companies to quickly establish a local response center near a major derailment and managers are flown in to populate the response center and make sure crews and passengers received all of the necessary services required, from immediate help to further transportation to either their destination or back home.

Others swing into action with the host railroad to determine how quickly a derailment scene can be cleared up and railroad service restored.

In Saturday’s Empire Builder derailment BNSF’s main line High Line was blocked at a remote location. BNSF will be the one clearing the track and restoring the infrastructure, and they will be anxious to restore the busy level of freight train service on this critical east/west line.

At BNSF, too, there are employees and managers and senior executives wondering what happened on their railroad and if there is some area which needs improvement in their safety culture. What we do know is Saturday’s derailment occurred on main line, 79 mph track territory on a very well managed and maintained railroad.

It’s not uncommon for railroad safety managers who are designated company first responders for grade crossing accidents, derailments or other catastrophic events to not make those jobs a lifetime career. It’s just too much of an emotional toll to deal with that on a long term basis.

And we know beyond the T&E and OBS employees on the train there are other company employees this will greatly impact. For major accidents, such as the City of New Orleans Illinois accident about 25 years ago or the Sunset Limited bayou accident in the early 1990s, the California Zephyr accident in Nevada more recently or the NEC accident on the curve just outside of Philadelphia among many others systemwide, the company has compassionate care programs in place to help employees with the emotional toll of these events. While some employees may not have been onboard the train at the time of the accident, they still had co-workers, friends and in some cases family working on those trains. The emotional scars of derailments and accidents go far beyond the physical scene of the event.

Many onboard employees who have been through prior derailments – and there are more of them than you realize, especially for the more senior employees – still carry emotional scars from previous derailments. While passengers may not realize it, some OBS employees when traveling over a rough piece of track – even when that track is well knows as rough – will still grimace from the reminder of the past.

After any grade crossing or similar accident, T&E employees have the option of being relieved of the rest of their run before the train proceeds further. Some take the option, others don’t. Either way, the emotional impact is still there.

For this Empire Builder derailment, initial national news media reports seem to be mostly correct without unnecessary sensationalism. There have been the usual click bait headlines, but the actual reporting has been realistic. Local handling of the story has been another matter, with one headline in a Minneapolis newspaper proclaiming passengers were left stranded overnight in St. Paul Union Depot. Obviously, the headline writer was trying to localize the story since the Empire Builder is the only train serving Minneapolis/St. Paul, but managed to cheapen the impact of the whole story in the process by ignoring the three fatalities and over 50 injuries.

From a passenger standpoint, using the terms “dazed” and “confused” is not an exaggeration. For those in cars which flipped on their side it must have been like a roller coaster ride gone horribly bad, especially in the Sightseer Lounge car which was probably crowded at the time of day of the derailment.

Here something to think about from a rescue standpoint: While in any American passenger car, the surroundings may seem cozy. But, when a car is on its side and passengers and crew have fallen to the new floor/the side of the car, looking up a the other side of the car where rescuers will come to help is a full 10 feet above them. Light may be coming through windows, but there are very few passengers who can scramble up to reach those windows which can be removed for rescue purposes.

Once out the windows and standing on top of the car on its side there is another 10 feet to get down to the ground. Then there is the issue of passengers who want their luggage, computers, etc. to add to the general confusion while trying to determine who needs immediate medial care, who can wait, and who is just shaken, but not seriously injured.

Think about the dining car crew in the kitchen. If a dining car is in a derailment and it remains upright most likely some hot food will slosh around and perhaps burn an employee. If the car goes on its side, it’s never a good scenario for the chefs and cooks; major injuries can occur.

All in all, there are never good scenarios at a derailment scene. Fortunately, unless there is an outside element which can cause a fire or explosion such as the California Zephyr Nevada accident, there is not much to burn in an Amtrak passenger train or to cause a fire.

One result of any accident on any route is when the news reports of the event many readers may say to themselves “I had no idea passenger trains were still running” or “Really? There is a passenger train that passes through here?”. Either way, not a good reason for awareness of passenger trains.

Perhaps the greatest irony of this event was the Sightseer Lounge car deadheaded on the back of this consist and dropped off at a local siding several hundred miles before the derailment. The car was loaned by Amtrak to local first responder authorities so they could practice disaster response in their county in case of a derailment.

In the end, the only appropriate sentiment is to extend hope for everyone who survived the derailment that there will be swift and complete recoveries, both physically and emotionally, whether they were onboard employees, company employees or passengers.

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