Amtrak Train Crash Brought Out Trump’s Worst—and NTSB’s Best
These first responders are part of a deep state only in the sense of being deeply dedicated to the public good.
But the derailment that killed three in fact involved a new engine on recently upgraded tracks making what was billed an inaugural early morning trip from Seattle to Portland.
That all added to the mystery of what did cause the accident. And even as Trump was tweeting, the National Transportation Safety Board was mobilizing one of a rotating roster of “Go Teams” that remain on perpetual 24-hour alert.
“Most Go Team members do not have a suitcase pre-packed because there’s no way of knowing whether the accident scene will be in Florida or Alaska,” the NTSB website says. “But they do have tools of their trade handy—carefully selected wrenches, screwdrivers and devices peculiar to their specialty.”
In this time when Trump and his pals talk about witch hunts, the investigators will again prove to be government at its careful and conscientious best. They are completely independent of partisan politics, members of a deep state in the sense of being deeply dedicated to the public good.
What is now the NTSB started in 1926 as an office in the U.S. Department of Commerce tasked with investigating aviation accidents. It became the Bureau of Aviation Safety at the newly formed Civil Aeronautics Board in 1940. It then became part of the newly formed U.S. Department of Transportation in 1967, its duties expanded to include significant accidents involving all modes of conveyance.
In a rare flash of wisdom, the U.S. Congress decided in 1974 to make the NTSB a completely independent agency. The enabling legislation noted, “No federal agency can properly perform such (investigatory) functions unless it is totally separate and independent from any other… agency of the United States.”
Be it trains, planes, ships, or surface vehicles, investigators in jackets bearing the letters NTSB stand ready to investigate with no other purpose than to determine what happened and how it might be prevented from happening again so that nobody else will be needlessly injured.
In keeping with the usual practice, one of the members of the safety board—T. Bella Dinh-Zarr—served as a link to the media after Monday’s accident. The press conference was notable mainly for Dinh-Zarr’s lack of hostility toward reporters and for her caution in uttering anything that had not been verified as true news. She was asked at one point whether the accident had involved a new train on a new track, making an inaugural trip.
“We are aware of the fact that this was called an inaugural run of this service,” she replied. “But we want to check and make sure what exactly that means and find more information about that specifically.”
Compare that to a White House press briefing following a presidential tweet.
Compare it to the shallow state that runs no deeper than what serves the self in the instant.
If our democracy ends up derailed, we can be sure that reckless rushing to judgment was a factor.
Meanwhile, as they set to work on the latest train derailment, the devoted NTSB investigators will be checking whether an online tracker was correct in determining that Amtrak 501 was going 81 miles per hour. Investigators will also confirm early reports that the engine pulling the train was one of the eight new Siemens Charger locomotives that were bought for the new route with Obama-era economic stimulus money.
The Siemens Chargers are said to accelerate faster than other locomotives and the investigators will study whether this might have played a role. They will examine the train signals and the tracks, knowing that renovation can have its failings. They will also check the crew, including past performance and a recording of a conductor calling the train dispatcher immediately after the accident.
“Amtrak 501, emergency, emergency, emergency,” the conductor says on the tape. “We are on the ground.”
“What happened?” the dispatcher asks.
“We were coming around the corner coming to bridge over [Interstate] 55 and we went on the ground,” the conductor says.
“Is everybody OK?” the dispatcher asks.
“I’m still figuring that out,” the conductor says. “We have cars everywhere. And down onto the highway.”
The dispatched asks if the train would be able to comply with the stop signal. The conductor has no trouble answering that question considering that much of the train, including a 132-ton locomotive has fallen to the highway.
“We can comply with stop signal,” the conductor replies.
However fast the train may have been moving, the investigators will proceed at a slow, deliberate pace. They often do not reach a determination until long after the reporters who initially clamored for answers have all but forgotten the accident.
An entire year after the May 2015 derailment of Amtrak 188 killed eight outside Philadelphia, the NTSB announced that it had determined the accident “was the result of a loss of situational awareness by the train’s engineer after his attention was diverted to an emergency involving another train.” The NTSB added that a technological back-up called positive train control would have overridden the distracted engineer when he entered a curve at more than twice the authorized speed.
“It’s widely understood that every person, no matter how conscientious and skilled, is fallible, which is why technology was developed to backstop human vulnerabilities,” NTSB Chairman Christopher A. Hart said when announcing the determination.
Those who lost loved ones on Amtrak 501 on Monday may also have to wait a year, or maybe longer before the NTSB is ready to conclude what most likely happened.
But they can be assured that every effort was made to gather all the facts, that nobody was rushing to judgement, that the deeply devoted state has done what government should do.