Three Dead as Amtrak Cascades Derails on Maiden Voyage of Faster Service

Amtrak Cascades derailed Monday morning on inaugural run of faster service. (Pierce County Sheriff's Office)

The first run of Amtrak Cascades service to Portland using the Port Defiance Bypass ended in tragedy as it derailed near Dupont, Washington. Some of traincars spilled off a railbridge and onto southbound I-5, colliding with five vehicles. Three train passengers died and more than 70 were injured. Our hearts go out to those affected.

Authorities expect southbound I-5 to remain closed at the scene of the accident for the rest of the day, and are asking commuters to avoid using this stretch of I-5 if at all possible. Amtrak canceled the next two southbound Cascades trains to Portland, and it’s not clear when Portland service will resume. Amtrak trains headed north and east continue to operate.

We previewed faster Seattle to Portland passenger train service this morning highlighting the greater speed and reliability. The derailment casts a dark cloud over the project. Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) co-owns Amtrak Cascades service with Oregon Department of Transportation. WSDOT issued a statement with its condolences and outlining next steps for the investigation.

The upgrades allowed trains to reach 79 miles per hour in the new bypass, although the bridge was marked with a 30 miles per hour speed limit, as it was on a fairly sharp turn. A spokeswoman told The Seattle Times WSDOT doesn’t yet have a theory about what caused the derailment. One official said authorities believe the train may have struck something on the track before going off the rails, the Associated Press reported, but that was shared on a condition of anonymity and a preliminary suspicion not yet verified.

Amtrak said to call 1-800-523-9101 with questions about friends and family who were on the train.

It’s also a good time to donate blood. Find a blood drive near you on Red Cross Blood’s website. Locally, Bloodworks Northwest is taking donations.

The featured image is by the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office.

Author’s Note: In an earlier version of this article I said six people had died based on Associated Press reporting, but the AP later retracted that report and stuck with three confirmed dead for the time being.

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Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.

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First, I would like to say that I am deeply saddened by the loss of life and injuries resulting from this morning’s Cascades derailment. For so many, their holiday plans have been turned from joy to sorrow.

I am a semi-retired historian and, also, a lifelong rail fan and supporter. When I heard about the derailment on the new Point Defiance Bypass, I immediately went to look at GoogleMaps. Although I had a general knowledge of the bypass plans, I had not surveyed the route and planning carefully.

I was stunned. I have never seen a mainline route with such tight curves – certainly not a route proposed for high-speed passenger traffic. What is the curvature? Who signed off – both engineers and project managers – on a double S-curve with such curves? Yes, Cascades rolling stock have tilting capacity to permit higher speeds on curves, but not anything approaching 79 mph.

I am aware that Lakewood Mayor Don Anderson warned about the dangers of the new rail bypass. Granted, he was most concerned about the grade crossings with high train speeds, but his criticisms pointed to a politicized process combined with low funding which sought champagne service at beer prices. As Anderson stated only a short while ago, it was a disaster waiting to happen.

Normally, I would not respond in this manner. I do live far away in Wyoming – although I have visited western Washington often, cycled throughout, and ridden the Cascades. But I am responding because of my reaction when I first saw the curved track and bridges over I-5. I truly was shocked how anyone directing the project could have permitted such a design.

Yes, I am aware that many in the Puget Sound area want to see transportation options that get people away from automobiles and planes. Still, just as all phases of highway construction or plane design must undergo rigorous review and quality standards, such should also apply to passenger rail projects. I do not believe that those standards were applied in the Point Defiance Bypass.


The reverse curves are from 1936.
See here for history and context:

It’s common for tracks have tight curves in constrained areas and speed restrictions are applied accordingly.


No. It is not common to have such curves on modern, high-speed routes.
They may exist in isolated, extreme cases – but the P.D. Bypass is not one of them.
The terrain is not constricting, although the funding probably was.

The Fort Lewis cutoff was not built as a modern mainline,
certainly not as a passenger mainline.
If WSDOT and Amtrak wanted to convert to such, then it needed to use modern standards.
China’s high-speed rail system has a 1% maximum curvature.
Horseshoe Curve on the Pennsy Mainline had 9 degrees curvature.
I suspect these curves are 15 degrees – possibly more.

Either the tracks should have stayed on the west side of I-5 to the BN junction –
Or a new, longer bridge with less curvature should have been built.

It was an unacceptable planning and engineering decision.
And. it cost lives.

Stephen Fesler

I don’t think the commenter was arguing that it’s common on high-speed routes. It appears they were pointing out the history of the corridor, which predates the current passenger rail use. The Point Defiance Bypass is clearly not a high-speed corridor otherwise the turning radius would have been much larger and the bridge would have necessarily been repalced. At best, it’s capable of eventually becoming a higher-speed route.


I agree, however, a 30 mph bridge with tight curves would not have been on a mainline route with more than a dozen passenger trains per day in the 1950s. I understand that money for passenger rail is slim to none. I have been a rail advocate since the 1970s. But I believe that it is essential to contextualize this planning and engineering failure.

Yes, there is a grade between the accident site and Nisqually Jct. – BM 170 at the bridge, BM 86 at the junction – 84 feet in 1.5 miles yields a ruling grade of not more than 2%, probably closer to 1.25%. With 12 articulated passenger cars and two locomotives, that is no problem.

According to the 1940 USGS map, it appears that the Old Pacific Highway utilized the southbound right of way of I-5 – most likely dating from 1936, the date of the rail bridge construction. However, in 1936 the bypass was a spur line for local service to the military base and a few other locations. Thus, the bridge was built to 1936 standards for LOCAL train service.

That is a double indictment. Not only is it an old bridge, but it was never intended for mainline service – even in 1936. It would be different if the bridge had been built in 1936 for mainline service. Many such bridges are still in service on the Northeast Corridor – although they need replacing, too.

I repeat –
There have been serious planning and engineering errors which led to this disaster.


They’re 7 and 8 degree, or at least were in 1993 per page 35:
And the geometry is constrained by grades, i5 clearance and the Nisqually junction.
I’m not disagreeing that the curvature is inadequate for modern high speed rail, just acknowledging that in this country we have neither the funding, lax property rights, nor lax environmental regulations to get anywhere near Chinese standards. As a result we often make due with piecemeal improvements.


Thanks for the link!


Here’s another:
Table 59 shows Sunday only local service.


Ex. Sun – i.e. Monday thru Saturday service
2 1/2 hours, Seattle to Olympia
With stops everywhere. Often called a “milk run”.
Guessing 20 mph max. speed thru Fort Lewis.
Sometimes just a single coach on a mixed freight train.
Sometimes just a few extra seats in the caboose.