JOPLIN, Mont. (AP) — Federal investigators are seeking the cause of an Amtrak train derailment near a switch on tracks in the middle of vast farmland in far northern Montana that killed three people and left seven hospitalized over the weekend.
The westbound Empire Builder was traveling from Chicago to Seattle when it left the tracks about 4 p.m. Saturday near Joplin, a town of about 200. Amtrak spokesman Jason Abrams said the train was carrying about 141 passengers and 16 crew members. It had two locomotives and 10 cars, eight of which derailed, with some tipping onto their sides.
Trevor Fossen was first on the scene. The Joplin resident was on a dirt road near the tracks Saturday when he saw “a wall of dust” hundreds of feet high.
“I started looking at that, wondering what it was and then I saw the train had tipped over and derailed,” said Fossen, who called 911 and started trying to get people out. He called his brother to bring ladders for people who couldn’t get down after exiting through the windows of cars resting on their sides.
Passenger Jacob Cordeiro from Rhode Island was traveling with his father to Seattle to celebrate his college graduation.
“I was in one of the front cars and we got badly jostled, thrown from one side of the train to the other,” he told MSNBC. He said the train car left the tracks near a switch where two tracks narrow to one but did not fall over.
“I’m a pretty big guy and it picked me up from my chair and threw me into one wall and then threw me into the other wall,” Cordeiro said.
Railroad safety expert David Clarke, director of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Tennessee, said the two locomotives and two cars at the front of the train reached the switch and continued on the main track, but the remaining eight cars derailed. He said it was unclear whether some of the last cars moved onto the second track.
“Did the switch play some role? It might have been that the front of the train hit the switch and it started fish-tailing and that flipped the back part of the train,” Clarke said.
Another possibility was a defect in the rail, Clarke said, noting that regular testing doesn’t always catch such problems. He said speed was not a likely factor because trains on that line have systems that prevent excessive speeds and collisions.